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What is the Difference Between An Actively Engaged Employee & A ‘Satisfied’ One?

Posted by: Ben Eubanks

It seems we see new surveys everyday around workforce engagement and employee satisfaction. The focus is on which elements of the workforce are truly giving their additional effort and what business benefits that sort of behavior brings overall. But are they the same thing? Can you expect the same results from an employee that is engaged and one who is satisfied? Today we’ll look at the answers to those questions and more.

Defining Engagement

We believe that engagement involves the extent to which employees are emotionally attached or passionate about their work, and their loyalty to the organization. Engagement is personal, linked to emotion, and based on values. (e.g., feeling respect, recognition, likelihood to stay with the organization, etc.)

This great quote from Jim Harter, a scientist at Gallup Research, helps to validate our definition:

“Engaged employees are more attentive and vigilant. They look out for the needs of their coworkers and the overall enterprise, because they personally ‘own’ the result of their work and that of the organization.”

-Jim Harter, Gallup Research

Defining Satisfaction

Many studies on happiness look at personal encounters and not solely at the workplace. One study looked at happiness as a larger combination of satisfaction and other positive emotions, but the important thing to note is that the two are linked. To that end we’ll use them interchangeably in this discussion.

Satisfaction is a very individualized measure, but a simple explanation is this:

“A satisfied employee is one that is happy with their work to some degree.”

As you can see almost immediately, engagement is of broader scope, and broader impact, arguably. Satisfaction sounds more like something that can come and go at a moment’s notice.

Here’s a quick example:

Have you ever had a satisfied employee that was being compensated fairly for their efforts find out about another similar employee’s higher compensation? That previously happy employee can instantly lose motivation and feel dissatisfied, even though the organization had no interaction at that turning point.

While Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos and author of Delivering Happiness, has helped the business world understand the importance of helping employees to be happy, it’s still a difficult concept for many organizations to set their sights on.

The Measurement Problem

When determining who is engaged or satisfied, we need a strategy to measure those characteristics. A challenge in getting the right data is making sure it is collected over a period of time. If the employee gets a single opportunity to rate job satisfaction and it happens to be in the same week he received a poor performance review (or found out about the coworker’s pay, as mentioned above), then the satisfaction rating will likely suffer, even if the problem is temporary.

On the other hand, collecting data on both engagement and satisfaction can provide better results when shorter “pulse” surveys are used over the course of time or when there is a regular period for re-measuring the same data points. That allows for trend analysis, whether individually or globally, and it also provides a more stable measurement long term which is less prone to wild swings based on the employee’s mood, life situation, or other impacts.

So, What’s the Difference?

Now that we have explored some of the definitions and how to measure, let’s consider what makes each of these characteristics different from a business standpoint.

Productivity Levels

We care about the people we employ. But we also have to respond to the needs of the business, and if employees being engaged or satisfied doesn’t drive a hard business outcome, then it isn’t worth our time and effort to measure. The answer is to attempt to tie these “soft” measures to a hard result. When it comes down to it, productivity is one of the key pieces that truly matters to business leaders. Unlike simple surveys on attitudes or feelings, productivity is one metric that can be measured, sorted, and analyzed. Most importantly: the more productive employees are, the more revenue they drive for the organization.

Research tells us that engaged employees are more productive. According to Harvard Business Review, organizations with a high level of engagement report 22% higher productivity. In addition, those organizations with an engaged workforce see an improved quality of work and health. In other words, it’s good for the employees while being good for the business, too.

That’s fairly significant, but what about satisfaction?

Don’t worry, there’s data for that, too.

Some University of Warwick economists wanted to perform a test to see if being happy led to better performance results. They created an experiment with two groups of individuals. One group received a piece of fruit and chocolate while watching a funny video. The second group received nothing and watched a calm “placebo” video. Afterward, both groups took a short math test. The result?

The group that was provided with treats and a humorous video, the “happy” group for purposes of this experiment, scored more than 10% higher than the control group that watched the placebo video.

The verdict: both satisfaction and engagement can lead to higher levels of productivity. Ultimately this might not be a question of either/or, but a question of how to ensure employees are both happy and engaged in their work.

Making a Choice

If your organization is trying to make the decision on whether to focus on employee satisfaction or engagement, there’s not really a wrong choice to make. As we see in these examples there are definite business benefits to increasing either characteristic. And there is plenty of opportunity for improvement.

Those statistics are fairly similar, and they can be taken in one of two ways. Either we can focus on the way things are or we can focus on the way things can be. We can choose to focus on activities that drive engagement and employee happiness and reap the benefits of those outcomes. Whatever the case, it’s time for action.


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