Maybe Engagement Doesn’t Really Matter


When Gallup released the most recent State of the American Workforce Report the engagement news was not good. Here’s what the report said:

“Currently, 30% of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work, and the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is roughly 2-to-1, meaning that the vast majority of U.S. workers (70%) are not reaching their full potential — a problem that has significant implications for the economy and the individual performance of American companies.”

Because the basic premise is that organizations with highly engaged workforces produce better results than those with less engaged workforces, I was surprised that the press didn’t make more of this data. I wrote about it here, but it was about creating the business case for caring about whether or not employees are or are not engaged. I guess the overall sad state of engagement in the U.S. is a given and not newsworthy anymore.

But I saw some new Galllup survey data that, frankly, raises new questions for me, and makes me wonder if “engagement” is really what we should be measuring. And if “engagement” and stronger financial performance really are causal, as Gallup implies.

The survey question was “If you won $10 million in the lottery, would you continue to work, or would you stop working?” So a rational person might think, “Well, if 30% of the workforce is engaged and 70% of the workforce is not engaged, then probably 70% of the workforce would quit their jobs if they found themselves $10 million richer.” Wouldn’t you think that? I certainly did.

So imagine my surprise to see that the response to this survey question is exactly the opposite of what we would have expected! 68% of polled working adults said they’d keep working and 31% said they would quit. Exactly the opposite!

Gallup win the lottery 1I’m confused. But then I thought I had it figured out when I looked at the next question, which asked those who said they’d continue working if they’d stay in the same job or take a different job. “Aha!” I thought to myself. “The people who said they’d continue to work would surely take another job – a job in an organization that would be more engaging since they’re all not engaged.” But no. Nearly half of those said they’d even stay in the same job!

Gallup win the lottery 2

Now I’m really confused. Maybe it’s financial. Except that the positive trajectory to stay in the same job started way before the recession of 2009. So it may not be financially motivated. In fact, $10 million buys a lot less in 2013 than it did in 2005 – and still the percentage of workers saying they’d stay in the same job has grown substantially.

So what’s the deal? Does engagement even matter? If 67% of the population will continue to work after winning $10 million – and fully half of those will stay in the job they currently have, why do we care about engagement scores? Does engagement really matter?

Enquiring minds want to know!



Filed under China Gorman, Data Point Tuesday, Engagement, Gallup, Winning the Lottery

18 responses to “Maybe Engagement Doesn’t Really Matter

  1. Here is a good resource if you are interested in more about the “what is engagement” conundrum: MACEY, W. H. and SCHNEIDER, B. (2008), The Meaning of Employee Engagement. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1: 3–30. doi: 10.1111/j.1754-9434.2007.0002.x
    Abstract: The meaning of employee engagement is ambiguous among both academic researchers and among practitioners who use it in conversations with clients. We show that the term is used at different times to refer to psychological states, traits, and behaviors as well as their antecedents and outcomes. Drawing on diverse relevant literatures, we offer a series of propositions about (a) psychological state engagement; (b) behavioral engagement; and (c) trait engagement. In addition, we offer propositions regarding the effects of job attributes and leadership as main effects on state and behavioral engagement and as moderators of the relationships among the 3 facets of engagement. We conclude with thoughts about the measurement of the 3 facets of engagement and potential antecedents, especially measurement via employee surveys.

  2. One issue is that we fail to differentiate between “employer engagement” and “job engagement”. You might hate the company you work for, or your boss, but still like the work you do. Equally, you might like the company you work for but hate the specific job you’re employed to do.

    Also, as you say, we need to differentiate between correlation and causal relationship

    • Exactly right, Simon! I’m leaning away from the whole “engagement” concept to the “best place to work” model these days.

    • Tigran

      More over Simon, there is team engagement, leader engagement, even client engagement than make a person stay with organization and hate it. The well developed Three component model of engagement distinguishes affectivem normative and continuance engagement that have different determinants and outcomes. What Gallup measures, I have no idea.

  3. All the answers are above. I read and enjoyed your post and comments just now and my thoughts were in this order:
    #1 I’m incredibly engaged but give me $10 million today and Ill have a great party with everyone on this list invited and then my only goal is to be a philanthropist and hopefully bounce my first check the day after I pass away. $10 Mil may not go as far but I’ll happily give it a shot.
    #2 Why would we trust the ‘intentions’ of un-engaged people to remain with their jobs? That is simply BS. See Paul above.
    #3 Engagement? Your definition or mine? Standards? See Susan.
    #4 Comparing apples and bananas is fun but its strictly a mental exercise. 2 independent studies asking essentially different questions with different respondents do not produce comparable results as the discussion surfaces. Still it might be nice to determine which operational definition of engagement really has a correlation (causal or not) with performance…not that retention is a guarantee of such. Just sayin.

  4. So maybe everyone has a skewed view of what engagement really is. I believe that workplace engagement for an individual is like an ocean it ebbs and flows. There are number of factors that influence engagement and many of them are out of the control of a manager or company. Personal relationships greatly influence how engaged an employee is at work.

    I also agree with Susan that I see it as odd that Neilsen looks at engagement but then again I’m sure they are aware that work, human capital and workplace technology are huge opportunities.


  5. Great post China. But my question is usually: “Why aren’t we looking at how Gallup actually measures engagement?” In my mind, that’s the real problem. I’ve been a Gallup customer and gone through the process numerous times, and the questions kill me. Just because I have a best friend and work doesn’t make me engaged. Plenty of work BFFs bond over crappy workplaces. And, even if I have the resources to do my job and a great manager, if I don’t agree with the direction the company is headed, I’m not engaged. Our teams used to have long, drawn out discussions around what “being engaged” actually means. In fact, many employees claim to be highly engaged and define that as coming to work 9-5 and “working hard.” The problem isn’t the confusing data outputs, it’s the inputs and the fact that we all think Gallup is right because all the big brands bought into their process.

    • I agree, Susan. I think you’re right about the big brands. I also think that the sheer volume of their longitudinal data is an incredibly persuasive asset in their marketing efforts.

    • I agree! Survey data can be open ended and leaves a lot of room for personal interpretation. I’d say it’s still important for employees to be connected and committed to perform their best, but like other have mentioned there is a question of causation. Focusing on making yours an organization to be engaged with seems like a good way to get teh most form your employees.

  6. Weird… but then not so much. To me, the answer to the question “will you continue working if you won the lottery” is way too open ended, and speaks more about human nature (the fact that people prefer the known and routine to different and unplanned) than engagement. People get satisfaction from work EVEN if they are not engaged 100%. The way we measure engagement does not correlate to whether they’ll stay or not.

  7. Interesting findings to day the least. I’ve been asking a similar question lately – and that is – “What is a good engagement score?” We say that only 30% of the workforce is engaged. What if 30% is a great score? We don’t know what a good score or bad score is. We know some companies are higher – some are lower – some are just right. But what is good? We would like to think that a score of 100% engaged would be a good number – or even the “right” number. But if I ever got that results I’d worry that it was a cult not a company. But is it 90%, 80%, 50% – no one knows. So all the work we’re doing to raise engagement may be for naught if we don’t really know what a good score is.

    So first off – we don’t have a good benchmark for what is acceptable.

    Secondarily – to your specific data – I don’t think we should use self reported data for “would you quit.” I would rather do an analysis of past winners and see what actual behaviors were exhibited vs. what they “say” they will do.

    Some facts I found interesting … from a 2010 study:

    “Researchers have found, however, that the likelihood of continuing to work decreases with the size of the winnings. Back in 1978, when $50,000 seemed like a lot of money, 25 percent of winners quit their jobs. When the winnings were increased to more than $1 million (an incredible sum in those days), 80 percent of winners stopped working altogether.”

    So winners do quit – at a high percentage if the winnings are high.

    Also…a study done in 2012 using real behaviors… not intentions.
    Doesn’t say how big the winnings are – that would make a difference in the stats too no doubt.

    48 % of winners who were in a career job before their win and are still in that job
    15 % of winners have started a new job since winning
    45 % of winners started their own business

    I think you’ve raised an important issue though – is engagement a thing to focus on? I’m thinking there is something else besides engagement that companies can work on if they want a better business outcome AND a better environment for their people. #HUMANIZE

  8. China,

    The State of the American Workforce Report which states only 30% of the workforce is engaged is probably on the money but you have drawn attention to a separate Gallup survey which asked the lotto question then came back with a reverse ratio finding.

    I’d make this observation about your two datasets which seem at cross purposes.

    Wording in surveys is critical. If the separate survey had of looked at a three output response such as “If you won $10 million in the lottery, would you continue to work for the same employer, would you continue to work in the same job, or would you stop working?” you would have achieved two very important things. i.) Your output would be more realistic as all three options would be primary considerations of the respondents; and ii.) you could then make some observations about engagement and causal effect.

    For what it is worth, the second survey looks to be badly worded for engagement purposes.


    • I agree with you, Shane. It was just such an interesting comparison — both were 70/30 — in opposite directions. Probably not at all fair to equate “engagement” with not leaving your job if win the lottery, but it didn’t seem that much of a stretch. And since the definition of “engagement” is not all universally agreed upon, it seemed like a fun comparison. Thanks for weighing in.

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