The Real Reason to Care About Employee Engagement

It's not about sensitivity, it's about productivity.

Posted Nov 04, 2015

I’m willing to bet, dollars to doughnuts, that variations of this conversation between CEOs and heads of HR have been repeated innumerable times in recent years:

CEO: I just don’t know about this “employee engagement…”

VP of HR: What do you mean you don’t know about it?

CEO: What do I do with it? Why should I care about it? I don’t care if my employees are “engaged” or “happy” — I want them to work hard.

VP of HR: Well, employee engagement isn’t really about “happiness…”

CEO: It just seems too “touchy-feely” to me. I’m a bottom-line business person. Why should I care about this kind of sensitivity?

At this point I’ll inject myself into this fictional conversation.  To the CEO I’d say: You’re right. From a management perspective, there’s no need to care about “sensitivity.”  But employee engagement ultimately isn’t about sensitivity.  It’s about productivity.

A $450 billion problem — A wide assortment of employee data shows us that national engagement levels are squarely in the 30% range, meaning some 70% of employees aren’t fully engaged.  One especially substantive Gallup study, including over 350,000 employees, estimates the annual cost in lost productivity at over $450 billion.  In short, employee engagement isn’t just some intangible HR concept; it has a very tangible productivity connection.  Even if the $450 billion figure is imprecise, it still gives a sense of the magnitude of the issue.

Wikimedia Commons
Workers in a can-making factory, 1909.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Different companies assess employee engagement different ways, but if they’re doing it right, they’ll end up with data that measures employees’ emotional commitment to their organization.  Our fictional CEO at the outset was right in that he doesn’t want simple happiness… if that implies a degree of complacency.  Employees might be happy and complacent if they don’t have to work too hard.  But our CEO does want what I’d call a “commitment mindset.”  Committed employees are motivated.  If they’re motivated, they’ll work harder.  If they work harder, they’ll be more productive.

Having managed human beings for approximately a quarter century, I can say with complete certainty: You’d rather have your employees engaged than not.  Any capable manager will tell you the same thing.  Mindset matters.  Attitude is a difference maker.  Would you rather have a committed employee who cares about your company and willingly goes the extra mile?  Or would you prefer one who’s indifferent…or worse still, disruptive?  Not much of a choice.

From a management perspective, for our fictional CEO at the beginning of this post, there’s only one reason to care — but to care a great deal — about having “engaged” employees.  They work hard.

In the aggregate, simply put, they’ll make your company stronger.

It’s not about sensitivity. It’s about productivity.

This article first appeared at

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Victor is author of  The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).

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