3 Ways to Reframe the Definition of Employee Engagement

This article is the second in a series featuring a revolutionary employee engagement concept called Engaged ProductivityTM.   Read the other articles in the series here or at:  www.authentum.com.

 So many “best practices” in engaging employees feel like bribery with promises of never-ending bliss.  It’s a bit like corporate leaders are behaving like our divorced parents – at some point, Dad trumps Mom’s trampoline by putting a pony in the backyard. But are any of us really any happier at work, every day?

I would love to believe that every employee at Zappos is happily gliding down the hall on a scooter; that everyone who works with Arianna Huffington feels as if they are thriving, and that every Google employee is a champion ping-pong player.

I’d love to believe it, but we all know this isn’t the case.

Don’t get me wrong.  I get it.  I do.  These, and many other great ideas, are all wonderfully happy and engaging activities.  But (and this is a big ‘but’), can anyone be sure that – because of these efforts – the right business productivity is happening, now and in the future? And then continuing as things change or when pressure is rising?

The reality is pretty daunting.  Gallup shows that companies will lose more than $300 billion, this year alone, in misguided attempts to engage their employees [in productivity].  Egad.  That’s A LOT of fancy chefs and keg-a-rators in the corporate kitchen.

Wasted money is one problem.  Frustrated employees is a completely different problem.  Consider what it must be like at the #1 best-place-to-work-in-the-world when you have a problem with a peer or when your boss doesn’t see things the way you do?  How can that possibly be? Spoiler alert – yoga and ping-pong can only get you so far.

Maybe I should explain why I care so much.  After decades of consulting, I decided to get my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from UPenn.  I studied happiness – from the perspective of business, precisely because I believe it should be possible to find your own happiness in your work, every day – and simultaneously increase business performance. After all, is it reasonable to expect these two dynamics to directly correlate?

After spending the last six years researching the topic, here are three things my research uncovered about the definition of employee engagement:

I.  Happiness is too broad.

Do leaders really think they can sustain the cheery disposition of thousands of employees every moment of every day – while getting these happy people to be more productive toward the actual strategic goals of the business?

Happiness is too personal.  Too emotional.  A leader could never make every employee happy, much less keep them happy over time. How could anyone fill that role? Think about waking up happy, one morning, and finding that you are unhappy that same afternoon.

II.  There are two perspectives to consider.

In your business, every activity comes from one of two perspectives:  the individual or the organization.  One is meant to serve the other, but they are different.  My research validated the obvious: the organization needs productivity, while individuals wish for engagement.  These two perspectives can be difficult to balance.  When you seek engagement, you may not get the productivity you seek, and, vice versa.

III.  We can’t forget about productivity.

First, the moose on the table – – The organization is not a human being (despite what the Supreme Court may be arguing,) it’s a series of processes.  It’s a system with goals that are meant to deliver profits.

Before we define engagement, we have to think about WHY a company needs engagement.  It’s a way to achieve more/inspire better performance and to retain (the right!) talent to continue doing that work.  We have to define engagement in a systems language that is grounded in productivity, or, we will keep losing tons and tons of money in our attempts.

My professor, Barbara Fredrickson, points out in her book Positivity that engagement is connected to ‘one’s ability to intentionally order his/her own goals [at work]’.


The research validates that employers can achieve meaningful engagement that leads to productivity, simply by transparently considering how employees choose to do the work – in the context of the organization’s strategic priorities.  This, btw, is the only level of engagement that a company has any direct (and sustainable) connection to.   Anything else – is truly none of their business.

So, I call my new definition, “Engaged Productivitytm:


“Engagement in productivity

occurs when employees can intentionally order their goals, including in teams,

within the productivity that defines their unique business performance, every moment.”

Once this foundational level of employee engagement (in productivity) is managed well, then happiness can be attained, in all kinds of ways.  Now, there’s a definition we can all be “happy” to work with!! (pun obviously, intended.)

Next up…  “Engagement is everything, but it can’t solve your problems.”

Even if we could get there, what do we do with it?

Engaged Productivity™ encompasses revolutionary new thinking to solve the employee engagement challenge in quick, precise and predictable ways. 

Learn more at:  www.authentum.com.

Pamela Teagarden, Founder of Authentum™, started her career as a banker, before her post-graduate work in corporate behaviors and positive psychology gave her a front-row seat at the intersection of business and behaviors.

Read more of her bio at:  www.authentum.com/about-us/

Follow Authentum on Twitter at:  @AuthentumAtWork

Talent Acquisition Executive, team-builder, and full-time dreamweaver. Creative Director, Content Designer, Writer, Speaker, Entrepreneur, terrible golfer, lover of The Art of War & Texas Hold 'Em.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • July 13, 2015, 8:14 am

    Here’s the rub…

    Tying “engagement” to productivity and profit is the reason we have low engagement. Engagement SHOULD be about connecting and aligning BOTH the company’s and the employee’s goals. When we REQUIRE an ROI we lose the employee side of the equation because it axiomatically demands that ONLy those things that drive a benefit for the company should be considered when “doing engagement stuff.”

    We need to look at engagement like we do our phone system – it is a hygiene factor for the company. We do engagement because it is the right thing to do. Don’t get me wrong – you can’t go out of business and have “engaged” employees. But we cannot look at engagement solely through the lens of the company P&L.

    Where is the “human” P&L? How do you judge that? This idea that engagement should only be about the company success is so one sided. It needs to be about how to balance company and employee success. You don’t have any other relationship in your life that one-sided. If you do it’s labeled “dysfunctional.”

    My 2cents.

    • July 13, 2015, 1:33 pm

      You are absolutely right. We actually a very much in agreement. TYING engagement to productivity is what we have been doing. My research showed how to LEVERAGE engagement AND productivity. It’s the difference between engagement AT work vs engagement IN work. The system models that I am suggesting are certainly not the final step. My findings have indicated that we can create a firm foundation for engagement in productivity. If that is the cake, then the other great stuff (that is in each individuals’ pursuit) becomes the icing. (hard to have icing without a cake!) Look at it this way. We have been trying to cool a room with an air conditioner, but the window has a crack in it. As we cool the room to an engaging temperature, money has been escaping through the crack. I have just made it possible to regulate the temperature. The room still has to be cooled to the most engaging temperature and maintained there. I just sealed the crack, so the right kind of engagement activities have a chance to work. Thank you for your comment and for such a great discussion.

      • July 14, 2015, 7:38 am

        I think there is a more fundamental consideration in that if you are worried about engagement because you want productivity or corporate performance than you should take a step back and reconsider. The problem is that those metrics become the REASON for engagement and not the outcomes. I liken it to wooing a potential mate by doing all the things you know they want/like but not liking them yourself – and knowing full well that if things don’t “pan out” – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – you’re stop doing them because their was no payoff.

        I think – to use your cake analogy – we need to see the employee’s needs as the cake and the payoff as the icing.

  • December 22, 2015, 3:55 am

    Interesting article John. I believeyour point on the transparency of the organization is paramount to employee engagement levels. I agree with Pam Teagarden that there is a distinct difference between engagement at work compared to engagement in work. Her research proves this theory and it is well worth a read.