Morale…or engagement?

There seems to be a lot of focus lately on “engagement” in the workplace.  Some people even say that this has replaced “morale”:  after I took a break from consulting in this field for several years then came back to write a book (see also tabs above), I called a friend who is in the employee morale survey business and he told me that I would “no longer recognize” anything because it was now “all about engagement”.  I laughed and continue to find this quite amusing.  The reason is that many management trends come into fashion then fade.  Some endure for a long time, and even become part of management theory, but they are a small number of the total; an example of an enduring and valuable insight is “corporate culture”, which has been an enormously useful lens through which to look at organizations, and which truly was a breakthrough from the limited way in which they were described and analyzed before. But for every “corporate culture” insight there are many ideas which have only a short shelf life.  Is “engagement” one of these or is it truly a breakthrough?  Has it really replaced “morale”?  Most important of all, is it really new?  Lets start with the last point…what exactly is engagement?

Most definitions make it sound like a higher level psychological state which leads to certain behaviors, but by a minority of employees: Gallup (which is widely quoted in our book) says that only 29% of US employees are truly engaged, which is a sobering thought.  Those talking about engagement mention several things which engaged employees do: advocacy (recommending the organization as a place to work or its products or services to customers); “going the extra mile” (not rushing out at 5pm sharp, staying on to meet special customer needs, for example); volunteering for assignments; showing low resistance to pitching in, and so on.  The only problem with this is that these are also classic traits of high morale employees!

Having said that, with the understanding that engagement and morale may indeed be quite strongly related, I believe engagement is a very useful concept for several reasons:

  • It seems to excite interest in the field and therefore gives people a focus on morale; this cannot be a bad thing
  • It gives us a way to say that a group is “engaged”;  we cannot say they are “moraled”, or “highly moraled”
  • It is a way to describe those who are truly at the highest level of morale in a way that makes sense to many people because the word “engagement” is so widely used in the English language;  because of this it may make it easier to share with employees and those who manage them, perhaps as a goal to reach (“a highly engaged workforce”)

I’d like to quote from our book because I spent some time there trying to synthesize morale and engagement in a way that makes sense:

“If we are to attempt a fusion of morale and engagement, it is this: engagement is a by-product of high morale, a result of it. When workplace psychosocial and physical environmental factors are perceived positively by the workforce, they experience a sense of well-being which we call high morale. When that morale level is high enough, it triggers behaviors on the part of workers which include the ones we have described above (advocacy, willingness to “go the extra mile”, commitment, helping others, etc.) and which we call “engagement”. Engagement is therefore not possible without high morale; and high morale usually results in engagement.”

I hope this adds to the discussion and look forward to any feedback you have on your experience using the concept of “engagement”.  In the end, there is no conflict here, just different ways of looking at the same thing.

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