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Why employee satisfaction isn’t enough for employee engagement

Satisfied employees are not enough to yield performance.

Ankita Callahan is Group Director of Talent & Culture at Long Dash, and formerly led resource management at Huge. She studied Cognitive Psychology at UC Irvine and has a Masters in Organizational Psychology and Business from Aston University.

A condensed version of this piece was originally published by Fast Company.

In the ecosystem of trends gone viral, the term “quiet quitting” infiltrated the discourse rather swiftly.

What began as a TikTok trend this summer, the concept worked its way into the mainstream media conversation before peaking somewhere around late August. Chances are you’ve read about it, either as the idea of people underperforming in their jobs or simply trying to maintain a work-life balance.

Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that there’s a real tension between employers and employees that needs to be addressed. A recent ResumeBuilder.com survey found that 26% of workers reported doing the bare minimum—or less—in their jobs. And most of those folks reported feeling burned out.

While burnout is no new concept, the so-called trend of “quiet quitting” has companies asking themselves what more they can be doing for their employees. Many HR teams are scrambling to figure out ways to improve engagement through company culture. While their instincts aren’t wrong, their approach might be.

Whether you are a company leader or a people manager, you too might be asking yourself, “what more can I do to keep my team content?” As an organization, you might even be conducting surveys to measure how satisfied your team members feel with their work arrangements. This is where businesses are going wrong. Employee engagement is not the same as employee satisfaction.

Employee engagement versus employee satisfaction

Employee engagement is a two-way street. It is a mutually beneficial exchange between the employee and the employer, and yields performance. Employee satisfaction, on the other hand, emphasizes what employers can do for their employees without any expectation of a return on investment. While both constructs are related, only employee engagement has been linked as a predictor of performance. As Lisa H. Nishii, an expert in organizational psychology at Cornell University, explains in her Diversity and Inclusion course: “You don’t want a satisfaction ring from your partner, you want an engagement ring.” The same is true for the employer-employee relationship.

"You don’t want a satisfaction ring from your partner, you want an engagement ring." The same is true for the employer-employee relationship.

How do we identify the difference between the two?

The academic definition of engagement refers to “an individual’s sense of purpose and focused energy, evident to others in the display of personal initiative, adaptability, effort, and persistence directed toward organizational goals.” In other words, engagement is active and when individuals are engaged, they invest their personal, cognitive, emotional, and physical energies into their work. They bring their thoughts, feelings, and real identities—their whole selves—to their role. Their job doesn’t contribute to burnout; it could actually relieve it if they perform their job without compromising on work-life boundaries. Dr. Nishii emphasizes in her research that the investment of these active energies nets out in behaviors that are more focused and mindful. It also increases connections with coworkers, bringing greater authenticity to work.

Engaged behavior is easy to identify. When an individual is engaged, they are focused and difficult to distract. They care about the outcome of their work and put in the effort to look at the finer details. They are not burdened by this effort. When they face challenges, they are excited to solve them, rather than disheartened. 

It is equally easy to identify disengaged behavior. Disengaged employees tend to withdraw and in doing so, they no longer invest those active energies. As Dr. Nishii explained in her course, they can become robotic in their work, are apathetic or detached, and become burned out. “When people disengage and become defensive, they hide their true identity, thoughts, and feelings; people go through the motions of work but do not give of themselves in their work. They are driven more by what they have to do than by what they want to do,” she says. They tend to be happy with “good enough.” 

This is why employee satisfaction isn’t a holistic enough measure. While engaged individuals are curious, seeking, and passionate, satisfied individuals are content with their present state. When you conflate measuring employee satisfaction with engagement, you end up evaluating what the company is doing for an individual and how content that individual is with their arrangement. This tells us nothing about their work-related energy or behaviors. It definitely doesn’t measure performance or improve business outcomes

Which one are you measuring?

Next time your company decides to run an annual engagement survey, take a closer look at the metrics. Psychologist William Kahn’s theory of engagement establishes three dimensions that drive employee engagement:

  • Psychological meaningfulness. This dimension involves making sure jobs are structured so that they are challenging, meaningful, and provide motivating opportunities to reach potential. Dr. Nishii adds that this reinforces people’s natural tendency to respond in kind: “If you give people challenging and meaningful work and set them up for success, they will reciprocate.” 
    • Key takeaway: Measure if your employees feel purpose and clarity in their role as well as if they experience meaningful interactions at work, not if they like their job and team members. 
  • Psychological safety. This dimension focuses on how safe an individual feels to engage at work. Employees look for signs of whether it is safer for them to be quiet or whether they can really share their thoughts. Managers heavily influence this dimension. The frequency and quality of feedback that managers seek and act upon, the transparency an individual experiences, and managers’ willingness to own up to and learn from their mistakes all play a significant role in building trust and creating psychological safety.
    • Key takeaway: Measure frequency and quality of feedback as well as trust between an employee and their manager, not if they are happy with the manager they’ve been assigned.
  • Psychological availability. This dimension centers around the bandwidth an individual has to be engaged. The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology highlights that engagement from the previous day carries into the next and is also influenced by one’s personal life. Psychological availability centers around allowing employees to renew their energy through work-life balance. In her teachings, Dr. Nishii adds that psychological availability is about providing learning opportunities that promote confidence and a desire to improve. “Insecurity creates anxiety, which consumes energy that could otherwise be used for engagement. Instead of spending energy worrying about it, they can just do it,” she said.
    • Key takeaway: Measure individual workload versus resources/tools provided by the employer, and measure individual confidence in doing their work, not just burnout.

Burnout and “quiet quitting” are real. Focusing efforts on employee engagement without conflating it with employee satisfaction is critical in mitigating these risks and elevating your employees’ overall experience. Engagement is a give and take, so focus on both and not just the “give.” Measure psychological meaningfulness, safety, and availability as a starting point to benchmark yourselves and commit to improving via action, both from employees’ and employers’ perspectives.

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