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Can Employee Engagement be Too High?

Employee engagement seems to be the holy grail for organizations. We exert enormous efforts and resources to achieve it. People and organizations build fortunes around advising others on how to increase engagement. Yet it proves elusive for most companies.

Employee engagement is so sought after because it has been proven to increase job satisfaction, productivity and retention. Its numerous benefits have been established over and over again. However, I recently realized that I spend a lot more time exchanging tips and ideas on how to disengage than on attempting to increase engagement.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I looked at my most engaged colleagues and friends, and at me, at the times I cared most about my job and my organization. What I saw was increased levels of stress, inability to disconnect from the job physically or mentally, and loads of frustrations and worries related to company decisions, work processes or mistakes.

We all know the risks of having disengaged employees, but is there such a thing as employee engagement that is too high?

I started reviewing some research to see whether there really is a darker side to this sought-after phenomenon. And the first thing I realized is that there is no clear definition of employee engagement in social research. It seems to be an umbrella term for other more specific constructs such as job satisfaction, organizational citizenship, proactive behavior and others. Which, for me, means that any findings related to the employee engagement concept should be taken with a grain of salt.

But let’s go back to the findings themselves. Unlike the many definitive studies that show the benefits of engagement, few look at its potential adverse effect, and they are far less conclusive. There is, however, certain evidence that very high engagement can be linked to burnout. It has also been linked to increased work interference with family life and thus increased family conflict. Highly engaged employees may, over time, become exhausted and show a strong intention to leave the organization.

While this evidence at least showed me that I am not crazy to think that an employee can be too engaged, it was not conclusive.

So I decided to return to the conversations I often have with my over-engaged colleagues and friends. I wanted to see if I could add my new knowledge to those experiences and understand what makes employee engagement turn sour.

I realize that no matter who I speak to, the words we use are generally the same. Sometimes I am the one who provides the advice. Other times it is I who is being coached. But it all revolves around:

“Don’t take it personally”

In the most basic sense, employee engagement can be seen as emotional attachment to the work one does and the organization they work for. When taken too far, this attachment may lead to us valuing the team’s, company’s, and client’s well-being more than ours.

In such cases, every mistake we make seems a fatal one. Every professional conflict becomes an assault on our identity and personality. And everyone who does not work as hard as us or does not uphold the same professional values as ours becomes the enemy.

Another aspect of this extreme attachment may be seen in how we may perceive certain leadership decisions or changes as a personal betrayal if we think they may harm the team, clients or organization. Even if those decisions or changes do not directly impact us.

I have actually left a job because I disagreed with the process and policy changes they were implementing. More than once.

This attachment and the consequent emotions and behaviors it provokes has obvious evolutionary benefits if it is to our family or tribe. However, such an intense devotion toward one’s job or organization may not be so constructive. Especially since we all know that most companies do not have the same attachment and dedication towards their employees.

Some of us are more prone than others to build such strong emotional attachments to our jobs. So to a large extent, it is on us to build self-awareness and keep an emotional distance.

Leaders and organizations, however, also play a part in keeping employee engagement and attachment to the job at healthy levels. They should also set boundaries and promote a “safe distance” from the job to avoid their most engaged employees slipping into burnout.

“It’s not a matter of life or death”

Some professions deal with life-or-death situations, but most of us have much more minor responsibilities. Yet I am sure all of you know (or have been) a person who loses sleep over a deadline. Or has their hair falling out over a bad financial quarter. Or miss their friend’s wedding because there is something urgent to finish at work.

The more engaged we are in our work, the more disproportionate importance we start to give it. And until a certain level, this is great because we are focused and responsible and dedicated. But from one point onwards, the tide turns.

Treating every task as a matter of life or death is expectedly bad for our health. But it is also not good for our quality of work. People perform best under an optimal level of stress. The operative word being “optimal.” Once we cross over to the other side of optimal, we start getting in our own way, and our error levels increase while our productivity decreases.

Although some individuals are more likely to perceive their work this way, it is actually organizations and leaders who create this “life-or-death” mentality. This often happens in teams where failure is severely penalized and where the only acceptable way to do things is the perfect way.  

Contrary to expectations, this approach does not lead to improving the disengaged employees’ performance because they don’t care anyway. It does, however, put an additional strain on the engaged ones.

One of the studies I read found that the difference between the optimally engaged employees and what they call the engaged-exhausted ones is in the resources they have to do their job. Both groups have challenging and demanding jobs that create interest and engagement. At the same time, the optimally engaged group had high resources and the engaged-exhausted ones – had low.

And I have seen it first-hand in my last team. Actually, what is worse – I saw optimally engaged employees turn into deeply exhausted ones when the demands of their jobs increased and the resources remained the same. It was the ones that were most engaged that took it hardest. It was scary and very harmful both for the employees themselves and for the work we were doing.  

Bad resource planning is, of course, detrimental to all aspects of the business, but it is good to remember that our most engaged employees are often the ones the most sensitive to it.

“Try to disconnect”

Usually, if the discussion about how to disengage from your job comes to the “try to disconnect” theme, the situation is really bad.

This is the part where the employee lives and breathes with their job. When the first thing they do when they open their eyes in the morning is to check their emails and when they take conference calls on their kid’s birthday.

This is also usually the time when a person realizes that they might have a problem and should really try to disengage a bit. And when employees come to me with “my husband said that he would leave me if I did not stop working so much.”

The inability to disconnect comes from all the issues we discussed so far, but it is strongly reinforced by a deeply unhealthy belief we have created for ourselves.

It goes something like that:

To be successful, you need to be engaged > Engaged employees always go the extra mile.> I need to constantly give 110% of my efforts > I need to always be “on.”

I have to admit, I am one of those who used to give 110% and only recently realized how profoundly wrong that formula is. I started thinking about all the other roles in my life and all the other activities I do. And I very quickly grasped that there is no other place in my life where I feel I have to always be on or always give 110%.

I could say that being a mother is one of the most critical roles in my life. Yet, I often fake it. When I am tired, or worried or simply do not want to hear yet another Minecraft story, I am most definitely not giving my son even 80% of myself, let alone 110%. Why do I feel then that I should be ever-present and ever-efficient at my job?

And the frightening thing is that just like a zombie apocalypse, the mandate to be always available and go the extra mile every single day is contagious. Leaders who work 15 hours a day create an expectation of similar behavior even without saying so. Organizations that consider going the extra mile as a matter of course, create a horde of zombies whose neurons are directly attached to the company’s VPN (and maybe should reconsider their workforce planning).

And maybe that is worth thinking about this Saturday afternoon before you click “send” on that email!

2 thoughts on “Can Employee Engagement be Too High?”

  1. Oh Yes, I’ve seen this with people working long hours especially away from home. It can tear up marriages and families pretty quickly. Then the workers come home and talk all about work for hours on end. The spouse or children just want their mom or dad around to chat with about regular stuff. I live in a very small rural area and many workers come from afar to work in construction. It’s not good for their relationships in most cases.

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