Does engagement drive performance, or the other way around?

There is much written about employee engagement and how important it is as a foundation for a successful team or company. However few people, until recently, have asked; does engagement drive performance or does performance drive engagement?

Some recent research sheds a fascinating insight into the answer.

BRW wrote about the research late last year.

This is what they reported

‘….. results suggest that companies with more engaged workers may end up performing better, but that it is just as likely that high-performing companies end up with more engaged employees, simply because they are more successful (my bold). Indeed, when businesses do well, they can provide employees with better pay and benefits, which will result in a higher sense of security, and even an ego boost.

Additional research by polling organsiation, Gallup, sought to understand the drivers of engagement at the individual employee level.

BRW continues:

‘In one of those studies, Gallup investigated whether leaders are more likely to engage employees by building close relationships and attending to their well-being, or simply by focusing on their performance. Gallup’s findings suggest that the most effective leaders don’t just motivate people by focusing on engagement; they are also focused on enhancing employees’ performance.

For example, employees are seven times more likely to be engaged when they report that their managers are aware of the tasks and projects that they are working on, which suggests that when bosses make their employees accountable, their employees are more engaged.

Conversely, when employees perceive that their managers have no clue about what they are working on, they are 15 times more likely to be disengaged than engaged.’

(my bold)

This is critical information for all leaders to absorb.

When times are challenging it is tempting for leaders to release the pressure on team members by focusing on relationship building (ie supportive conversations and cheerleading) while reducing accountability. The research suggests this is unlikely to be successful.

A combination of relationship building and accountability is most likely to succeed. In reality this means setting high standards and performance benchmarks and then working closely with team members to coach and develop them to meet (and hopefully exceed) these performance standards.

This approach is given further scientific substance by David Rock’s excellent book The Brain at Work (HarperBusiness, 2009) which details the SCARF model of how the brain responds in its quest to maximise reward and minimise threat in social interactions. The ‘S’ in the model represents Status.

In very simple terms; our brain is wired to seek status improvement and defend us from potential status reduction.

One’s sense of status goes up when one feels ‘better than’ another person. In this instance the primary reward circuitry is activated, in particular the striatum, which increases dopamine levels. One study showed that an increase in status was similar in strength to a financial windfall (Izuma et al, 2008).’

SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others by David Rock, page 3

Agency recruitment is, like any other area of sales, is a very status-aware environment in which the pecking order is well known and understood.

Poor leaders use this fact to, unintentionally, lower trust, create divisions, reduce engagement and, ultimately, create a team that delivers consistent under-performance.

A smart leader will interact with their team in a way that endeavors’ to both protect each team member’s personal status, by being friendly and respectful, while striving to enhance their professional status by setting stretch targets, investing in their development and holding them accountable to the accomplishment of those targets.

It’s obvious Geoff Morgan and Andrew Banks understood the importance of status in building a successful recruitment agency:

‘One of the most important annual events was the Morgan & Banks conference – it became a tradition and our people loved them.

The ‘Morgies’ were awarded at the black tie dinner at these annual conferences and it was fantastic to see the effect. – some people were in tears, thanking their parents, their families, their partners. It was wonderful to see the power and emotion that the recognition of effort unleashed.’

Flourish & Prosper: All we learned from our time at Morgan & Banks – and so much more  by Geoff Morgan and Andrew Banks (Penguin Books, 2004), page 58

Are you committed to boosting employee engagement by developing your employees and holding them accountable?

It’s more likely to have a positive long-term impact than a team building day or a big session at the pub; it just takes a much greater level of leadership skill and commitment to deliver.

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