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"I would suggest that using the word 'engagement' often limits our thinking. It assumes that our job is to reach out and 'engage' people, rather than to build an organization that is exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and fun." Josh Bersin, principal and founder, Bersin by Deloitte

Which would you rather have: an engaged employee or a high-performing employee? But just as the term "engagement" limits our thinking, so too does the question itself. Employee engagement and performance are not either/or; with the right leadership, they are both/and. It boils down to a chicken and egg situation. Which one came first? Who cares? Each depends on the other for survival.

Giving to Get; Getting to Give

Why do your people get up and go to work? Why do some bound out of bed, eager for the day? And why do others try to delay its onset with continual jabs at the snooze button? According to Dr. Balaji Krishnamurthy, a seasoned corporate executive and thought leader, some employees "give to get," while others "get to give."

Performing employees "give to get." They give their best in order to get - a paycheck, a bonus, cushy perks, a stronger resume, a better parking spot, you name it. By giving, they get all of this. Engaged employees, though, "get to give." They are driven to lead and help people, contributing to their company, to serve others.

If we were asking an either/or question, which type of person would you want in your company? If you said "givers," you're not alone. And you'd seem to have solid research on your side. According to the Dale Carnegie Institute, companies with engaged employees outperform those with low levels of engagement by up to 202%. Further:

  • Engaged employees were 87% less likely to leave their company than disengaged folks.
  • Work units in the top quartile for employee engagement outperformed their bottom quartile counterparts by 10% in customer ratings; 22% in profitability; and 21% in productivity.
  • Organizations with high engagement had 28% less shrinkage and 37% less absenteeism.
  • Companies with a highly engaged workforce have higher earnings per share.

But if you said you would rather have getters - well, you may be on to something there too.

Engaged... But

Here's the catch: your most engaged employees aren't necessarily your stars.

Prominent research firm Leadership IQ, for instance, found that in 42% of organizations, "low performers are actually MORE ENGAGED than high and middle performers." Further, they are:

  • More likely to give 100% effort at work.
  • More likely to recommend their company as a "great place to work."

Givers don't always give up great results. ANNE, Inc. (which encompasses Ann Taylor and Loft) wanted to determine what was more important to their bottom-line results: talent (or the ability to be a high performer) or engagement.

The retailers partnered with Gallup, which said, "While we did not anticipate that engaging managers with low talent would lead to exceptional performance, we did expect it to lead to better performance." They were wrong: stores with managers who had low talent and high engagement performed nearly 6% worse than those with both low talent and low engagement.


The takeaway: engagement is not a panacea. By itself, it cannot produce results; but when engagement meets performance, the results are powerful (and profitable). Which is why we're not asking an either/or question. Simply put: you need both. Or, more precisely, you need to create a culture that emphasizes, supports, and rewards both. How?

You can find book after book and article after article on creating engaging, high-performance workplaces. Read them. In the meantime, let's touch on a few steps you can take to create greater alignment between these two forces:

  • Provide feedback to your high-performers. Employees who receive regular (i.e. at least weekly) feedback are more likely to be engaged. Here's the problem: you're not giving your high-performers enough face time. Leadership IQ discovered two key trends: The efforts of stars are chronically unrecognized; and low performers' behaviors are positively reinforced. The effect: the high-performers check out and look for other jobs. And the low performers get comfy. Change this dynamic: give feedback to your high-performers. Recognize their efforts and their success - and tell them that they're appreciated.
  • Provide feedback to your low-performers. The reality: most of your low-performers do not know they're low-performers. They are completely oblivious. A few problems: one, they'll never improve if they don't know anything is amiss. And two - and perhaps more damaging - working with low-performers decreases productivity and engagement among high-performers.
  • Hold people accountable. When low-performers are not held accountable, not held to the same standards, it erodes the morale of high-performers. While many are intrinsically motivated to do their best, they are more likely to opt to do their best in another company. Set a bar, and hold everyone to it.

This is just a start: a cornerstone in the entire structure of a high-engagement, high-performance culture. Another start: jettisoning the either/or thinking. Don't delude yourself: to compete, to thrive, today - you need high performers who are highly engaged. It's up to you to create a culture that values the chicken and the egg, without quibbling over which came first.


Larry Hart

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