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TD Magazine

Engaged or Encaged?

Monday, July 31, 2023

If your company's employee engagement programs aren't unleashing workers' full potential, something is wrong.

One of the current trends that employers are dealing with is keeping their employees engaged. According to research from the Society for Human Resource Management and Gallup, employee engagement is so important to organizations that executives indicate that enhancing it is one of their top five global business strategies. Companies are spending billions of dollars to solve the problem, and they frequently deploy engagement surveys to get a pulse on employee engagement. At the same time, however, Gallup reports that global employee engagement is at 23 percent.


Why do engagement levels hover in the 20 percent range? Could it be that the solutions that organizations are implementing result in staff encagement rather than engagement?

Prioritizing the wrong solutions

Employee encagement is a phenomenon that occurs when employers focus on the inputs of the organization rather than the inputs of the employee. In other words, employers seem to be focused on short-term solutions or activities such as potlucks, employee-of-the-month programs, recognition, family day, and—my favorite—T-shirts.

I am not suggesting that those solutions aren't valuable or important, but perhaps companies should not prioritize them because they focus more on what the organization can do or give to staff to keep them rather than what the organization can do for them. That concept is a common thread in most employee engagement definitions. Consider these, for example:

  • The connection and commitment employees exhibit toward an organization, leading to higher levels of productive work behaviors
  • When an employee has rational, emotional, and motivational connection with the company
  • When an employee is emotionally and intellectually committed to the organization or group, as measured by consistently speaking positively about the organization, having an intense desire to be a member of the organization, exerting extra effort, and exhibiting behaviors that contribute to business success

Even though there are various ways to define employee engagement, each employer has their own definition and reasoning for incorporating engagement strategies. If engagement numbers aren't improving, that may mean those engagement strategies are, instead, encagement strategies whose focus is not on individuals' talents and strengths.

William Kahn, the father of employee engagement, defines the term as when staff are highly absorbed in their work performance, which implies that there is more of a connection to their work than the organization alone. Further, Harvard Business Review suggests that most engagement models should center around the work experience rather than the employee, which clearly aligns with Kahn's definition.

Kahn has identified three psychological enablers of employee engagement:

  • Meaningfulness—when an employee finds their work meaningful and has a sense of return on investment of self in role performances
  • Safety—when an employee feels able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career
  • Availability—when an employee feels they have the physical, emotional, and psychological resources to personally engage at a particular moment

Therefore, rather than employers asking whether staff are engaged, the question should be: Are the organization's engagement strategies aimed at engaging workers or, rather, keeping them happy, complacent, and satisfied so they will not leave?

The impact of employee encagement

Given most education system structures, it may appear that when a student becomes an employee, there is a win-win for the employer and the former student, now employee. However, from an engagement standpoint, it sometimes is a lose-lose outcome.

A real win-win outcome for the employer and employee would be a situation in which the employer taps into the talents of the worker, who has the requisite skills, performs at an optimal level, and chooses to stay at the company.

An example of a lose-lose situation for an employer would be one in which the organization hires an individual whom hiring managers identified as a good fit, but the new hire leaves sooner than expected, resulting in the company going through another costly recruitment and retraining process. In contrast, a lose-lose situation for a new hire would be one in which the organization does not fully use the employee's natural abilities—their talents—resulting in not only the individual's disengagement, but also their disinterest in serving as an organizational ambassador (which means positively promoting the company; embodying the corporate culture in appearance, demeanor, values, and ethics; and connecting with the mission).

The insignificant movement of organizational engagement scores could be a symptom of employers' focus on hiring for only workplace skills instead of natural abilities. One way to improve the scores is for managers to assess employee talents. Another method is for companies to revise the questions and prompts on engagement surveys to focus more on the whole employee, meaningfulness of work, as well as talents and natural abilities.

Evaluate engagement surveys

Think about how long it has been since your company's talent development or HR function last examined engagement survey questions and prompts. How balanced is the survey? Do the majority of the statements request feedback on leadership, culture, or trust rather than the employee? Does the survey seek to find out what the organization lacks or what staff desire? If the purpose of such surveys is to identify what engages employees, how certain are you that the prompts in your survey are indeed seeking to engage staff and not encage them?

Employee engagement surveys must strike a balance between organizational and employee inputs. They should include questions that tap into workers' talents, natural abilities, and personal strengths as well as matters that fulfill team members.

Of the 84 statements in the US government's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, one stands out to me: "My talents are used well in the workplace." That statement digs into the core of the individual. Bamboo HR published a blog post that suggests nine prompts that should be on every engagement survey. Of the suggestions, one was similar to the standout comment from the FEVS: "My manager recognizes my full potential and capitalizes on my strengths." The rest of the prompts address organizational inputs, as do the other FEVS statements. However, questions that seek to capture and understand the use of employees' talents, natural abilities, and strengths in addition to the organizational inputs can result in employers boosting employee engagement.


To improve employee engagement, TD and HR functions should implement these tactics.

Rethink employee selection. Review the battery of job interview questions. If they are theoretical and do not seek to assess or diagnose a candidate's talents, it may be time to revise. Examples of questions to modify include:

  • What do you like about accounting?
  • What specific skills do you bring to the position?
  • Why should we hire you for this position?
  • What makes you passionate about the field of marketing?

Becoming inquisitive about the candidate's natural abilities provides more insight on the individual. Partner with the hiring manager and seek clarification on what nonskill-related characteristics are necessary. Examples of better interview questions to ask include:

  • What would you say are your natural abilities?
  • What are your personal strengths?
  • What are your skills?
  • How would you distinguish the difference between your talents and skills?
  • If you had a chance to do anything professionally, what would that be?
  • How do you see yourself using your talents in this role?

Suggest survey modifications. Review how balanced the engagement survey is. If it is heavily one-sided and seeks to improve the organizational inputs, consider adding statements similar to "My talents are being used well in the workplace" or "My manager recognizes my full potential and capitalizes on my strengths." Additional examples include:

  • I know the difference between my talent and skills.
  • I get a feeling of personal fulfillment in my role.
  • I am at my personal best when doing my work.
  • My personal strengths are being fully utilized.
  • I look forward to doing my job each day.
  • I never question whether I am in the right role.
  • I maximize my talents in my role.
  • My manager knows what my talents and natural abilities are.
  • My manager has strength conversations with me.

Coach managers to become strength seekers. The right manager can have the greatest impact on a worker's career, and many times managers fear losing direct reports. However, if someone decides to leave an organization because their manager has encouraged them to seek their dreams and be fulfilled, the company should celebrate rather than castigate that. A strength-seeking manager should consider asking these questions to their direct reports:

  • If you quit today, what would you do?
  • How does that career option relate to your current role?
  • Are you able to use that interest in this role?
  • What was something you envisioned doing when you were younger?
  • What are your natural abilities or talents?
  • Do you know the difference between your talents and skills?

TD professionals are well positioned to assist managers with increasing their knowledge of the differences between an individual's talents versus skills. Coaching will help managers explore and navigate their own talents and skills, which can lead to a better understanding of the distinction between the two. The byproduct is that managers will become more competent and skilled in investigating their direct reports' talents and skills, which can lead to more engaged employees, improved job satisfaction, and increased retention.

Redesign roles. Job crafting is an exercise that an employee can do on their own or in tandem with their manager that entails assessing and altering one or more core aspects of the individual's job description. The manager and direct report should discuss how best to incorporate tasks that are relevant to the employee's strengths and natural abilities. They should also have an exploratory discussion about what it will take for the worker to have a stronger connection with their current role.


Questions such as these are helpful to the exercise:

  • To be fulfilled in your job, what tasks would you need included in your role?
  • What tasks would you need incorporated in your current role that align with your life's purpose?
  • What aspect of your role has the least significance to your purpose?

Job crafting can help employees get re-energized and reimagine their work lives.

Focus on job satisfaction. Research indicates that job satisfaction is a predictor of organizational commitment and that employee engagement antecedents, such as self-efficacy and resilience, play a major role in engagement. Job satisfaction can be defined as a pleasurable and positive emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one's job and job experiences.

When focusing on job satisfaction, managers should explore the ways in which their direct reports find pleasure in their roles—if not daily, at least weekly. Managers should likewise examine where the emotional connection is between the role and individual. Note: Responses associated with pay, benefits, perks, work hours, flexible schedules, and other organizational inputs relate to encagement rather than engagement.

Incorporate well-being. If your organization is going to implement a well-being strategy, be sure to emphasize career well-being. Career well-being means an individual finds their work enjoyable and uses their strengths daily. Employees who have good career well-being are interested in their work and answer yes to the question, "Do you like what you do each day?"

Move the engagement needle

Employers adopt many solutions in an effort to enhance their employees' work lives. However, despite those strategies and despite the importance executives place on engagement, many companies still don't see engagement numbers improving. For better results, employers should consider prioritizing the employee first and addressing the organizational inputs second. Such slight modifications could be a valuable step in companies' engagement strategies.

In Search of a Meaningful Career

Organizations have a wealth of employees who have acquired workplace skills, but the companies may be poor when it comes to staff using their natural abilities. Individuals need workplace skills to perform a certain job, such as engineering, accounting, journalism, or information systems. Employers traditionally hire from a skills-based mentality rather than a talent-based mentality. However, it is not the organization's nor the worker's fault; it all lies within the education system's structure.

Think about the structure of most educational programs. Beginning in elementary school, students learn workplace skills. Skills development gets more specialized as students progress in their educational career. The purpose for the skills development is to secure employment after the education process.

A National Center for Education Statistics study of 25,000 undergraduates found that nearly one-third of those who declared a major changed their major at least once within three years of initial enrollment. That could signal a trend of students attempting to search for a career that is meaningful—and aligned with their talents and strengths—which will lead to being professionally engaged and fulfilled. That is similar to what employees do when they bounce from company to company, change careers, or are burned out because they are not personally or professionally fulfilled.

Job Satisfaction and Organizational Commitment

Prior to employee engagement, employers focused on job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Many empirical studies show that job satisfaction is a strong predictor of organizational commitment, signifying that if an employee is satisfied with their job, they will commit to the organization. Additionally, job satisfaction has been shown to be an antecedent of employee engagement, which means that workers must be engaged in their work first, not the organization's inputs.

So, what happened—why did companies swing toward employee engagement? Because there was a profit to make. In the early 2000s, several articles suggested a profit linkage to employee engagement, and, to this day, for-profit consulting companies are selling their engagement products.

About the Author

Davis M. Robinson is a published author and a national speaker with more than 25 years of experience in organization development. He received his doctorate and master’s degree from the University of Louisville and his bachelor’s degree from Western Kentucky University. Robinson is the author of Discipline Your Motivation: Construct Confidence, Defeat Deterrents, and Believe in Yourself!

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Great insights!
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Great article and insight - thank you for articulating such important thoughts!
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