Is there an optimal level of employee engagement? (And, is it 100%)?

Employee engagement is good, right?

Of course, it is, if you look at it as an abstract concept.

We want our teams to be engaged, motivated, driven, purposed. We want to provide a positive environment where great people can thrive and grow and develop.

But there you have it … right there in the details … we want GREAT people to thrive and grow and develop. We want to maximize their engagement. But do we want to maximize engagement for everyone? Can we maximize engagement for all employees and still maximize engagement for our top performers? Are there tradeoffs? Is that even possible? Is an environment that engages high performers also an environment that engages low performers? Should we be pursuing 100% employee engagement or is there some other optimal level we should strive for?

I have lots of questions as you can see.

Let me make a few points for your consideration and then I’d invite you to share in the comments section so we can have a dialogue about the subject.

Engagement on Your Real Team

There is a difference between teams in the abstract and teams in reality. It’s extremely rare that a manager has a team where each and every member is a top performer. That is a desired state – something we all strive for, but almost never reach. I can tell you with no measure of embarrassment, that I’ve never reached a level in my management career where every member of my team was a top performer. Most of the time in fact, I find myself in the middle of some type of transformation. I take on new teams, business conditions change, people come and go, it’s almost impossible to reach a universal level of performance. At least it has been for me.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that most managers have similar experiences to mine. They typically have teams with a quasi-pareto distribution. 20% of team members are absolute stars and really move the needle in a major way. The other 80% range from developing stars, reliable performers and some under performers. If you team doesn’t look quite like this, that’s fine, the principle still holds well enough.

Some Questions for You

Knowing this, do we want stars and underperformers to be equally engaged?

If underperformers are highly engaged but still not performing, what does that say about their competency and fit for your team?

If your approach to recognition and rewards creates an environment where both stars and underperformers report high engagement, are you sure you have the right program?

If you’re answering “No” to these questions, then isn’t that an argument for the optimal level of engagement on your team being less than 100%? Is there a disconnect between a near universal worship at the altar of engagement, and what we actually should want?

A Counter Argument

One argument against what I’ve just laid out is that as a manager, you want to get the best out of every employee you have. You want to maximize performance. In any given moment, you want to field the best team you possibly can, whether they’re top performers or not. And that you should seek to maximize engagement for everyone regardless of performance level.

I have argued in the past – including in my blog about Unicorn Recruiting Strategies – that you don’t necessarily want or need a team of “A” players. That it is a fool’s errand. Rather you want to build an environment where people can pursue their own personal bests. One could argue that the way to do this is to maximize engagement across the board.

The challenge with that argument is that it assumes (falsely I think) that the only way to maximize performance is to maximize engagement. More precisely – that the only way to maximize performance is to maximize engagement SCORES. It also assumes that everyone on your team can and will eventually maximize their own performance and that it will be at the level you need.

The reality of my experience, is that at any given time, there are going to be some underperformers on your team who, no matter how positive the environment is, cannot reach the level you require. In these cases, managers need to apply pressure - to aggressively manage performance. And, in some cases, manage people out of the organization. In these unfortunate (but not uncommon) instances, do you really want these underperformers at maximum engagement? I would argue that if you’re applying the right level of pressure and giving the right amount of critical feedback, this could be impossible.

Some Questions for You

Do you want your top performers highly engaged and your underperformers less engaged because of intense pressure on their performance? Or should they both be equally engaged?

Can you apply pressure on underperformers and still maximize engagement for them? Is this even possible?

Should an underperformer be highly engaged right up until the end?

My Ask of You

As you can see, I don’t have many answers. I can argue both sides of this debate. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing in my head for the last week or so. I wanted to invite you into my internal struggle and ask you to share your thoughts and experiences with me so we can advance our collective understanding of the subject.