Employee Engagement is Not a Mandate


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I read an article last week about forcing the issue of employee engagement, as if someone could force that upon an employee. I’m not even going to link to the article, as I wouldn’t share such misinformation. But I am going to blog about it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to remind everyone that you have to be careful about what you read on the Internet and that you can’t believe everything you read.

Seriously, I had to reread the post a few times to be sure the author was serious. Based on his response to comments (with similar disbelief to mine), I assure you, he was. OK, sure, organizations can strive for 100% employee engagement, but it is virtually impossible. I don’t even know if Zappos has 100% employee engagement. Recent research shows that the percentage of employees, in general, who are engaged is far south of that: Only 10% of employees are engaged. While this is just one study, there are many more that support this issue of disengaged employees.

Regardless, engagement cannot be forced upon employees or mandated, dictated, or declared. An employer cannot say, “You will be engaged!” and make it so. It just doesn’t work that way. Engagement is so much more than that; almost literally, when the stars are aligned, there will be engagement!

Engagement involves a relationship between employee and employer; there’s a give and take from both sides. When conditions are right, employees become engaged.

For a great definition, take a look at one that Bob Hayes mentions in his recent blog about Employee Engagement. Note item #3 under “Employee Engagement Construct,” which states: “Employee engagement suggests absorption, dedication, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort, and energy on the part of the employee.” I have previously written about employee passion and how it drives results. Passion is not something that can be forced upon you. Passion is an emotion; it comes from within you. Each of the items in that definition comes from within you.

Imagine if your manager walked up to you this morning and said, “I don’t think you are an engaged employee. Let me coach you on how to be engaged. You have to be an engaged employee; it’s not an option.”

I assure you: That will not happen any sooner than your boyfriend will fall in love with you because you told him he had to.

Yes, employee engagement is critical. But instead of dictating, employers can create an environment/culture that supports (helps build) and facilitates employee engagement. These suggestions on how to do that come from Jill Donnelly at Customer Service Experts:

  1. Create a work environment that is positive and employee-focused.
  2. Provide ongoing training, development, and opportunities to learn.
  3. Ensure processes are customer-centric and employee-focused.
  4. Develop a relationship with your employees; have frequent interpersonal contact with them.
  5. Guide your team with a vision and set standards that will enable you to offer employees consistent feedback and direction.
As I mentioned in my post, It’s Time to Focus on Employee Experience, I believe the right people with the right tools at the right company with the right culture leads to employee engagement.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Annette Franz
Annette Franz is founder and Chief Experience Officer of CX Journey Inc. She is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, consultant, and speaker. She has 25+ years of experience in helping companies understand their employees and customers in order to identify what makes for a great experience and what drives retention, satisfaction, and engagement. She's sharing this knowledge and experience in her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the "Customer" in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business).


  1. Annette –

    I’d suggest that optimizing employee engagement may not be the key issue here. In 2006, The Conference Board published “Employee Engagement, A Review of Current Research and Its Implications”. According to this report, twelve major studies on employee engagement had been published over the prior four years by top research firms such as Gallup, Hay, Towers Watson, Blessing White, the Corporate Leadership Council and others.

    Each of the studies used different definitions and, collectively, came up with 26 key drivers of engagement. For example, some studies emphasized the underlying cognitive issues, others on the underlying emotional issues.
    The Conference Board looked across this mass of data and came up with a blended definition and key themes that crossed all of the studies. They define employee engagement as “a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work”.

    At least four of the studies agreed on these eight key drivers:
    • Trust and integrity – how well managers communicate and ‘walk the talk’.
    • Nature of the job – Is it mentally stimulating day-to-day?
    • Line of sight between employee performance and company performance – Does the employee understand how their work contributes to the company’s performance?
    • Career Growth opportunities –Are there future opportunities for growth?
    • Pride about the company – How much self-esteem does the employee feel by being associated with their company?
    • Coworkers/team members – Do colleagues significantly influence one’s level of engagement
    • Employee development – Is the company making an effort to develop the employee’s skills?
    • Relationship with one’s manager – Does the employee value his or her relationship with his or her manager?

    Other key findings include the fact that larger companies are more challenged to engage employees than are smaller companies, while employee age drives a clear difference in the importance of certain drivers. For example, employees under age 44 rank “challenging environment/career growth opportunities” much higher than do older employees, who value “recognition and reward for their contributions”.

    In the final analysis, one wonders whether employee engagement is just another trendy concept, or really a big deal? In the various definitions of engagement and enablement which The Conference Board located, there is never direct connection between employee behavior and customer behavior. It is always assumed and inferential. So, there may be some general areas of correlation, but there is no established causation.

    It is the linkage of employee behavior to customer behavior that may be the truest component of customer centricity. I covered this in a widely-read CustomerThink article:

  2. Michael, I think you bring up a great point.

    When you look at companies that deliver a great experience, it’s not unusual to find that they also have engaged employees. But clearly there’s more to it than that.

    “Happy” employees don’t necessarily focus on the right things (at least, we should not just assume so). I remember quite a few dotcoms that showered their employees with perks (free salmon for lunch, anyone?). Employees were happy right up to when they closed the doors for good.

    Personally, I think the key is engaged employees who are empowered to deliver great value to the customer. (And do it within a profitable business model.)

    All that said, I found this research recently which suggests a causal relationship from employee engagement to customer behavior to company profits. What’s your take on the science behind this chart?

    Source: The Forum (Northwestern Univ.)

  3. Thanks for reading and for your comment. I think there are a couple of points to follow up on:

    1. Regardless of what all of the research says, the fact is that if your employees are not emotionally tied to your brand and the effort they exert in support of the brand, the customer experience will not be stellar.

    2. I think our definitions of engagement are aligned… the emotional connection that aligns with my drive to put forth effort and to want the company (my employer) to succeed.

    3. I think it’s quite fair to say that people buy from people. I don’t know any/many who would dispute that.

    4. Work that I’ve done with clients in the past shows that there is a correlation between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. The employee’s satisfaction, and hence level of engagement, drives the employee’s behavior… which in turn drives the customer’s satisfaction and resultant behavior.

    To some degree, it is semantics… but obviously you need to understand the flow or the chain and how one drives the next.

    Bottom line of my post is… and I stand by my position… employee engagement is an emotional connection with your employer. It cannot be forced upon you. It comes from within. It is necessary. And it does drive the subsequent chain of events.

  4. Bob –

    Refuting and dissecting the Northwestern University model could be an entire white paper or a book chapter; however, stated simply, the model challenges belief and acceptance on multiple levels and also benefits from some commentary on its components:

    1. There’s little to no proof that employee satisfaction, even defined in fairly traditional ways, drives customer satisfaction. Just establishing correlation doesn’t prove causation. Also, both employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, while comfortable and safe metrics for many companies, lack measurement rigor and connection to behavior.

    2. As noted in my blog response, employee engagement can be defined in multiple ways. While there is every likelihood that positively engaged employees contribute to positive customer behavior (and vice versa), at least on an incidental basis, again there is no real causitive evidence.

    3. Positive (and negative) customer behavior definitely links to financial performance. This is the strongest element of the model. Importantly, there is no linkage claimed between customer satisfaction and customer behavior, and this lack of connection or causation has been well proven. There is also no connection claimed between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. However, one wonders why the model builders didn’t test for these linkages.

    4. Finally, showing a positive connection between customer satisfaction and financial performance is a significant stretch. For example, while developers of the ACSI can point to stronger macro financial performance among their top-scoring companies compared to bottom-scoring companies, some years back Fred Reichheld famously determined that there was a 0.00 correlation, for all companies included in ACSI satisfaction measurement, between year-to-year changes in their satisfaction performance and their year-to-year sales performance.


  5. Michael, as you know it’s very difficult to “prove” anything with statistics. Correlation is not causation, and every study has its flaws.

    Yet I as review research from respected institutions, I come to the conclusion that engaged employees are in fact a key ingredient in customer loyalty which drives long-term profitable growth.

    For example
    * Gallup’s 30-year study of employee engagement

    * The Service-Profit Chain from Heskett et al, Harvard

    * ACSI: here’s a good discussion of pros and cons.

    * In your article you state:

    Employees are at least as important as other elements and contributors to effective customer management in optimizing benefits for customers.
    Study findings such as this have demonstrated that employees contribute to customer behaviors representing both disappointment and delight, and all intermediate behaviors as well.

    and here’s a graphic you included in that article:

    These days, I think it’s pretty well understand that mere “satisfaction” is at best a precursor to higher levels of loyalty/engagement/advocacy. It’s just the “chips to get into the game.”

    You make an important point that in the end it’s the behaviors that count. If employee “engagement” is state of mind, effective leaders will direct it towards activities that will affect the customer attitudes and behaviors that drive business outcomes.

    Annette is right that you can’t mandate employee engagement any more than you can mandate customer loyalty. You have to earn both, and make sure to connect the dots between them.

  6. Bob –

    No one, least of all me, will argue that there isn’t some relationship between employee engagement and customer behavior. The Forum, and many other studies, consistently demonstrate that result. The issue is the amount of lift, i.e. the degree to which engagement leverages, or drives, behavior. Conventional wisdom, built on the Service Profit Chain and promoted largely by companies conducting employee engagement research, is that there is direct linkage, and high correlation, with behavior. They regard engagement as the best way to make the connection with customer behavior. But, is the linkage strong and direct or incidental and modest? I don’t disrespect the findings and reports of these companies, but I reserve the right to disagree with their assertions about the strength of customer behavior effects derived from employee engagement. The Conference Board analysis I cited challenges both the definition of employee engagement and the customer behavior-related claims of companies conducting such research.

    Employees are significant contributors to customer behavior, but is it engagement that makes them so? Employee advocacy and ambassadorship studies, in multiple industries with diverse sets of employees, generate much more powerful, and more causitive-oriented, linkages between employee mindsets and behavior and customer behavior. I wrote about this in a short CustomerThink article several years ago -http://www.customerthink.com/blog/driving_customer_loyalty_behavior_through_employee_ambassadorship_vs_employee_engagement – and would be happy to share my employee ambassadorship vs. employee engagement findings with anyone who is interested in seeing them.

    Again, employee engagement and employee advocacy/ambassadorship are different research framework concepts, yielding different results where customer behavior is concerned. As stated in my 2009 CustomerThink article: “…engagement is principally about employee happiness, alignment and productivity, with incidental impact on customer-related processes and customer behavior, while ambassadorship is principally about customer processes and behavior, with incidental impact on employee alignment and productivity.”


  7. Thanks, Michael. I agree — what we’re looking for are behaviors (employee advocacy/ambassadorship) that drive better performance.

    Some of these behaviors could be customer-focused, leading to better customer experiences and increased loyalty. Other behaviors might drive business outcomes that really aren’t related to customers — such as simply being more productive.

    However, while employee engagement and employee advocacy/ambassadorship may be different, they are related. As your previous post noted:

    Our framework positions employee engagement as being embedded within ambassadorship (and HR managers and execs have found that explanation acceptable); however, engagement is principally about employee happiness, alignment and productivity, with incidental impact on customer-related processes and customer behavior, while ambassadorship is principally about customer processes and behavior, with incidental impact on employee alignment and productivity.

    And it seems that without engagement, you’re not going to get ambassadors, no?

    I would be interested in seeing more details of research in this area. Maybe another article?!

  8. Bob –

    Thanks for the invitation to submit employee advocacy content. This would be valuable, I think, for CustomerThink members. In fact, I’m going to be preparing multiple articles with the employee advocacy theme. The first article will address the employee research progression, from satisfaction, to engagement, and finally to advocacy and ambassadorship. The second article will feature key employee advocacy research results, in multiple industries, as conducted through a major international poll.

    Look for the first article in a day or so.


  9. Wow, that was fast!

    Your new post: “Employee Ambassadorship and Advocacy: Living the Promise of ‘Wow’ Customer Value Delivery (Part I)” is published at http://bit.ly/JLZ8r9

    I like your positioning that employee ambassadorship means commitment to company, value proposition and customers. That certainly gives “engagement” a focus.


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