How does your organization define employee engagement? Is it personal motivation? Discretionary effort? Some kind of enthusiasm? For over two decades, organizations have focused on improving this vague metric that’s rife with conflicting meanings (and without much to show for it). The truth is that engagement—by nearly any definition—does not reliably indicate the future performance of either individuals or businesses. It’s also highly associated with the employee’s disposition, which makes it even more complex and less helpful. As our latest research shows, work output is a better metric than worker sentiment, and increasing it yields far greater individual, team, and organizational results.

109% increased probability of organizational growth when great work is happening

INTRODUCTION

Is employee engagement still a valuable metric? Scarier yet, was it ever?

Despite the billions of dollars organizations have invested to “drive” engagement, the best assessments of this fundamental concept haven’t shown much improvement. Over the past 18 years, engagement (as tracked by Gallup) increased from 26% to 34%, an average of less than half a point each year.1 Shouldn’t organizations have more to show for all the time and resources spent on increasing this metric?

Skepticism is growing about the utility of measuring engagement. While it can gauge employee perception, it doesn’t reveal causation or accurately predict job performance.2

It’s time organizations rethink whether tracking engagement is the most effective way to improve business results. Our data suggest there’s a far better factor and predictor of success. It’s called great work.

ENGAGEMENT IS NOT A MEASURE OF ACTUAL WORK

Ask four different people at any organization what engagement means and you’re likely to get four different answers. Senior leaders in our most recent study define it as a measure of optional effort. Some HR leaders were almost cynical, one of them calling it a “KPI of employee effort that senior leaders care about.” People leaders felt engagement was indicative of how much employees cared about their work. And, finally, employees said it was about how the work was done.

“Employee engagement is about the connection employees have with their work. Highly engaged employees do their work not just because they are paid, but because they care about doing a good job.”
—PEOPLE LEADER, FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT

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Even engagement experts have contrasting views. Gallup defines engagement as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace,”4 while Willis Towers Watson describes it as “employees’ attachment to the company and willingness to give discretionary effort.”5


Almost everyone agrees that engagement is a measure of intangibles like motivation, commitment, and energy. But it’s not a measure of actual work that comes as a result of those feelings. The work itself—quality, quantity, efficiency—is what matters. Being engaged does not mean an employee is converting good feelings or energy into great work.

And, if no universally accepted definition of engagement exists, how do you improve it?

A BETTER MEANS TO THE SAME END

Organizations should be more focused on nurturing and achieving great work, rather than increasing engagement, because great work directly leads to better business results and provides organizations with more actionable strategies for improvement.

Previous research from the O.C. Tanner Institute uncovered five behaviors that employees who consistently do great work demonstrate:6

Figure 3. THE FIVE SKILLS ASSOCIATED WITH GREAT WORK
Employees who consistently accomplish great work demonstrate these behaviors.

1. Ask the right question

Great work begins when people ask how they can make a difference (or if there’s something new the world would love) and then focus on who their work serves—whether it’s customers, clients, team members, or leaders. They think about improvements with the recipient in mind. For example, how can a task, process, or product be made easier, faster, safer, or better? Employees who master this skill tackle a specific problem, consider what they’re good at, and imagine what others might love if anything were possible.

2. Go and see

Employees who do great work observe and examine from a variety of perspectives to see new possibilities. They look at what’s being done now, how people experience it, and then imagine how it could be improved. They assess the process, consult with other disciplines, and survey the details and patterns. Whether it’s visiting a customer, standing on an assembly line, or watching users interact with a product, they have a better idea of what’s missing and the future they can create because they see it for themselves.

3. Talk to an outer circle

Great work improves when people talk to others they wouldn’t normally interact with and generate ideas they wouldn’t normally think of. Employees who consistently do great work invite others to join them, and they expand their circle of contacts by networking with people beyond those they know. They gather information and insight from each conversation, from subject matter experts to those with contrary points of view. And they keep track of every great idea that comes up.

4. Improve the mix

People who do great work don’t make improvements randomly. They look before they leap. They think, plan, and fine-tune the changes they make, often adding improvements and removing elements that don’t work or don’t add value. They look for connections between ideas, check the fit often, and watch as signs of a great mix gradually come together.

5. Deliver the difference

Great workers are laser-focused on positive outcomes. They persist until they get results. If their work isn’t loved the first time, they learn why and try again. Failure is seen as experience and progress until their accomplishments inspire others. People who deliver the difference have the tenacity and resilience to keep working until they know they’ve done something great.

“To do great work is to put your heart and soul into something. To not only do what you’re told, but to put your stamp on something; to add a little extra; to have pride in your work.”
—EMPLOYEE, GREAT WORK INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

These behaviors and practices behind great work are more specific and easier to define, measure, and train than employee engagement. They’re also more reliable and predictive of business success than engagement because they directly affect business outcomes.

When organizations shift their focus to great work, it may be helpful to take a segmented approach based on employee personality types. Each type of employee has unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses, and they exhibit great work behaviors differently.

EMPLOYEE PERSONAS: STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES, AND PROBABILITIES

Employees are diverse in myriad ways, but our research finds they tend to fall into five main categories that can help us better understand them in the context of great work:

Employee personas: strengths, weaknesses, and probabilities

Each of these employee personas has a different probability of being engaged, as well as a different probability of doing great work. Builders and Socializers have the highest likelihood of doing great work, while Coasters have the least. Achievers have a relatively high probability of engagement, but not great work.

Probability of engagement for each employee persona

The bottom line: High engagement does not equal great work, and engagement is unreliable at measuring and predicting performance. Traditional engagement surveys may acknowledge and measure different employee personalities, but they don’t show the true discretionary effort of the larger employee population.

Next, we looked at the likelihood of each group to practice the five behaviors associated with great work. Achievers work hard, but they may not push to make improvements. For Taskers, asking the right question and going to see were challenging. Despite an appreciation for the big picture, Builders weren’t as likely to talk to an outer circle. Coasters scored lower on all behaviors, whereas Socializers naturally demonstrated most behaviors.

Insights such as these make great work a more practical metric than engagement. Knowing how employees work allows organizations to tailor strategies that maximize employee performance. For example, if we help Achievers improve the mix in their work, there’s a 133% increase in aspirational great work frequency. If we help them deliver the difference, we see a 201% increase. And if both behaviors improve, the aspirational great work frequency soars 577%.

It’s interesting to note that if Achievers, for instance, improve in all five behaviors, there’s a 655% rise in aspirational great work frequency, which is not dramatically higher than the result of improving just the two behaviors with the greatest impact. In other words, improving two specific behaviors for a particular group may achieve nearly the same result as improving all of them. So organizations can be extremely efficient by targeting strategies to achieve great work for each employee based on their profile.

Looking at measures that lead to great work, rather than engagement, provides an exciting opportunity for employees to do meaningful work and for organizations to significantly improve their business outcomes.

“Employee engagement is about the connection employees have with their work. Highly engaged employees do their work not just because they are paid, but because they care about doing a good job.”
—MINDI COX, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, PEOPLE AND GREAT WORK, O.C. TANNER

RECOMMENDATIONS

Instead of trying to increase employee engagement, organizations should focus on four specific ways to help employees produce more great work.

1. Strengthen culture

The best enabler of great work is a strong culture that supports and encourages it. Cultures that provide purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, wellbeing, and modern leadership increase the probability of great work for every type of employee. Socializers, Taskers, and Coasters, in particular, are keenly influenced by culture.

What parts of workplace culture matter most? Across all five personas, opportunity and success have the biggest impact on the propensity to do great work. For Socializers, appreciation is most important.

Provide employees with opportunities for career development and growth, enable their success, and show appreciation for their efforts, and all of them will be more likely to do great work.

2. Integrate recognition

Employee recognition that’s authentically and consistently demonstrated within an organization’s culture is critical to ensuring great work, especially for those employees most motivated by rewards and recognition.

3. Provide modern leadership

Modern leaders mentor, coach, advocate for, and appreciate their people. Because they tend to give employees more autonomy and connect their people to purpose and accomplishment, they have a positive impact on employees who are goal-driven and self-motivated. Traditional or average leaders have little effect on the production of great work—and even constrain productivity for top performers.

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Taskers and Builders are less responsive to modern leadership, as Taskers are feedback-averse and Builders need less help from leaders in general. Coasters, however, show a 351% increased probability of great work when given modern leadership.

4. Be inclusive

An inclusive culture enables all employees to do great work. Global authority on workplace culture, Great Place to Work®, found US companies with large gaps among the experiences of employees of different races and backgrounds had significantly lower revenue growth than companies with smaller gaps among experiences.8

Inclusion has a particularly strong effect on aspirational great work frequency for Coasters (+875%), Socializers (+284%), and Taskers (+220%). When employees feel they belong, are valued, and make a difference in their work, they continue to do more great work.

ENGAGEMENT REVISITED—KEY TAKEAWAYS


The long-held focus on employee engagement has not led to better business results.

Great work is a more effective metric to improve employee and organizational performance.

A great-work approach to performance and business results is more tailored to employees and more actionable for organizations.

Creating strong cultures of recognition, inclusion, and leadership enables employees to accomplish great work.

Engagement Revisited Sources

  1. “US Employee Engagement Reverts Back to Pre-COVID-19 Levels,” Jim Harter, Gallup, October 16, 2020.
  2. “Where Measuring Engagement Goes Wrong,” Peter Cappelli and Liat Eldor, Harvard Business Review, May 17, 2019.
  3. “Being Engaged at Work Is Not the Same as Being Productive,” Ryan Fuller and Nina Shikaloff, Harvard Business Review, February 16, 2017.
  4. “What is Employee Engagement and How Do You Improve It?” Employee Engagement Guide, Gallup, 2021.
  5. “The Power of Three: Taking Engagement to New Heights,” Willis Towers Watson, May 7, 2019.
  6. Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love, David Sturt, O.C. Tanner Institute, McGraw Hill, 2013.
  7. Ohio Living Case Study, O.C. Tanner, 2017.
  8. “Racially Diverse Workplaces Have Largest Revenue Growth,” Claire Hastwell, Great Place to Work, January 5, 2020.

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CASE STUDY—ENGAGEMENT DOES NOT EQUAL PRODUCTIVITY

Microsoft looked at data for two companies to see if high engagement predicted more productivity. Using average weekly working hours, it found a strong correlation between engagement scores and longer working hours at the first company, which believed highly engaged employees chose to work longer hours. However, when Microsoft looked at employees who worked extremely long hours (those in the 90th percentile), engagement scores dropped.

At the second company, the analysis found 25% of employees were highly engaged but had a relatively low number of working hours, and 22% worked long hours but scored low in engagement.

According to Ryan Fuller, Workplace Analytics Lead, and Nina Shikaloff, Principal Project Manager at Microsoft, “Most people agree that a highly engaged workforce is a good thing, but companies need to be thoughtful about what their engagement scores are actually measuring—which can be quite variable.”3

CASE STUDY—A GREAT CULTURE IMPROVES PATIENT CARE

At Ohio Living, one of America’s largest not-for-profit aging services companies, a comprehensive recognition program includes all employees in every location. It sets the expectation at new hire orientation that employees appreciate each other, and it ties recognition to the company’s pillars and values, seeing the investment in recognition as a competitive advantage and a fundamental part of their workplace.

Because employees feel valued and appreciated across their employee experience, they’ve done great work leading to improvements in patient outcomes, such as:

• Lower hospital readmission rates
• Lower infection rates
• Lower nursing turnover
• Better patient health

According to Laurence Gumina, President and CEO, “By focusing on our recognition program, we’ve been able to demonstrate improvements in our care delivery, improvements in our market share throughout all of our regions, and more importantly, the care we provide to our residents.”7

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