You Can’t Drive the Engagement of Highly Skilled Employees by Just Keeping Them Satisfied


Guess what, just keeping your employees “satisfied” isn’t going to cut it to drive engagement, especially for today’s highly skilled talent. Just as employee engagement is effort by the employee above and beyond what is required in their role (discretionary effort), the employer practices that drive engagement should likewise be above and beyond.

Employee Engagement for a New Economy

The concept of employee engagement appeared in the management literature almost three decades ago. When the concept of engagement emerged the U.S. was transitioning from an industrial economy to a technological economy; sometimes referred to as the new economy.

Many of the current measures of employee engagement in companies actually measure job satisfaction not engagement. Such measures may have been effective to drive employee engagement in an industrial economy, where job security was paramount, but the new economy brings with it a different set of workplace demands from employees to illicit discretionary effort. This is especially true for highly skilled employees who know their value in the labor market and have no fear of job insecurity.

Issues in Measuring Engagement

An illustration of using satisfaction measures to assess engagement is the widespread use of the word “fair” in surveys. Many employee engagement surveys measure employees’ beliefs that specific aspects of their work situation is “fair”, like compensation and benefits for example.

Merriam Webster defines fair as follows:

fair \fer\ adj 1: sufficient but not ample: ADEQUATE

So ironically, employers are using employees’ beliefs about the adequacy of their compensation to infer the likelihood that they will give more than adequate effort!

Everything we know about today’s highly skilled labor force is that they don’t just want adequate pay, they want competitive pay – ample pay for ample effort. A better question to measure this might be assessing the employee’s belief about the competitiveness of their compensation or the alignment of their compensation with what they feel they deserve.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

The point of the above example is that employers can’t hold themselves to a lower standard than employees when it comes to engagement.    Job satisfaction is not engagement for today’s highly skilled worker. Satisfaction is a baseline that allows the employee to meet the demands of their role at 100%, not above and beyond.

Adequate employer practices to drive ample employee effort will not work for today’s highly skilled worker. Employers must strive to be thoughtful about the work conditions they create to drive engagement and must likewise exceed the expectations of what an employee can find elsewhere. Below are a few suggestions for companies to do just that:

Know where you stand. Companies should have a clear understanding of where they stand relative to competitors in the following areas: compensation and benefits, company culture and learning and development. These are all big drivers of discretionary effort. While it’s not necessary to be above the curve in all of these areas, companies will have to work to find that perfect mix that attracts, engages and retains the top talent they desire.

Review your employee surveys. Are you only measuring if an employee is satisfied across various areas? If so, consider asking your employees where you might exceed their expectations in key areas of their work experience. Engagement is an exchange relationship and employees who feel that the employer is surpassing their expectations are much more likely to apply discretionary effort as reciprocity.

Individualized Employee Value Proposition. Surveys are a great starting point, but the reality is that the motivators of discretionary effort are likely to vary across employees. An employee value proposition is the set of tangible and intangible benefits an employee receives for their work output. What actually defines value is dependent on the employee. Thus, managers should spend time talking to their employees on a regular basis to understand their longer term career interest and current workplace expectations to be motivated.

Employee engagement is a two-way street between the employee and the employer. Through thoughtful workplace practices, effective management and the use of appropriate survey tools, employee engagement can be a powerful workplace initiative for today’s highly skilled worker.

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