There are many myths and half-truths about employee engagement. This article covers 12 common myths about employee engagement. We identify what engagement is actually about and how you can influence engagement in your team, either as an individual contributor or as a leader of people.

What Is Employee Engagement?

I define employee engagement as the strength of one’s emotional connection and level of commitment to their organization. Having an emotional connection to your company means believing in its purpose. How hard you work to achieve that mission is your level of commitment. A highly engaged employee believes in their work and strives to help the company achieve its goals.

Myths About Employee Engagement

Here are our top 12 myths about employee engagement. Avoid these misconceptions to better facilitate engagement on your own team.

#1 Disengaged employees are bad employees

It’s easy to blame people for not being engaged with your company. However, there are several reasons why a good employee may feel disengaged at work. Are they in the right role with the right responsibilities? Do they understand the company mission and vision? What is their motivation for doing a good job?

I once had a team member who wanted to do great work but didn’t believe their job was important. Once I framed the significance of their work within the company’s goals and outlined specifically how their work contributed to meeting our goals, they began investing much more energy in their work. They paid more attention to detail, increased the quality of their work, and regularly asked more questions to ensure they were on the right track both in their work and in their attitude toward our mission. This team member wasn’t a bad employee. They had a poor perception of the value they were bringing. They believed in the company mission—it resonated with them as something meaningful—but didn’t see the connection to their day-to-day work. Once they found that connection, everything turned around.

#2 Disengaged employees are in the wrong job

When you believe you have the right person on your team but their performance is poor, you may believe you’ve placed the person in the wrong job. While this is a possibility, there are other reasons that may be behind poor performance. Before you dismiss their fitness for a job, ask yourself if they have what they need to do a good job. Have you or other team members demonstrated your support for the this person’s work? Do they have the tools and resources they need to do a good job?

It’s not uncommon for people to fall into a state of complacency in the workplace. Inertia takes hold, and they believe that things won’t change because they’ve always been a certain way. Processes won’t adapt to changing circumstances. “This is how we’ve always done things” feels like a very safe reason to avoid conflict and accept undesirable circumstances. However, once you point out ways a poor performer can change things for the better—and assure them that it’s safe to shake things up a bit—you may find they’re the best person for the job. Once someone has some autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose, they can move mountains. “I have the freedom to make things better, the skills to make things better, and the desire to make things better! I’m going to make things better!”

#3 Satisfied employees are engaged employees

Employee happiness or job satisfaction are concepts often conflated with employee engagement. However, it’s absolutely possible to be completely happy with your job and completely disengaged from your company. People can be happy with their coworkers, their day-to-day tasks, their compensation, and so on, but not care much about the company’s higher level goals. Some may even feel safer not sticking their head up and forming a stronger connection to the company. Why commit to more work to meet company goals when you’re doing perfectly fine for yourself by keeping a low profile? Some people that fit this profile may not care much about the company mission while deeply enjoying their work experience.

Conversely, you may find unsatisfied employees who are highly engaged with your company. In the past, I have fallen neatly into this category. I believed in what the company was building, but was never pleased with what had been done. I felt like there was always more to do and that I had not done enough to attain our mission. This is a bit of an extreme example of intrinsic motivation. I had a strong internal sense of purpose, emotional connection to my employer, and a strong commitment to my work. However, I held such a strong connection to our mission that I never felt like I had done enough. Thus, I had low job satisfaction but high engagement. I wanted to build great things, but I let the desire to do so override any sense of accomplishment.

#4 High performers are highly engaged

While excellent job performance can be an indicator of engagement, the two concepts are not the same. Just as you can be very satisfied and disengaged, you can also be a great worker and disengaged. This can be a frightening combination at scale: if your high performers are not highly engaged, they may be at risk of leaving your company. And if they’re high performers, they likely have high employment mobility, meaning some better opportunity will find them eventually. When that time comes, you’ll wish your top performers were highly engaged. A strong emotional connection and commitment to your company, in most cases, can be enough to deter them from competing offers.

So how do you know if a high performer is highly engaged? Examine why you believe them to be high performers. Are they producing high-quality work only within their defined job role, or are they reaching out beyond that role? Do they strive to improve their team, or even the entire company? Have they referred their friends and industry peers to work for the company? Do they promote the company mission and vision to others? If so, you have a highly engaged employee on your hands.

If you believe your high performers are not highly engaged, not all is lost. You can facilitate their engagement through things they value. Personal recognition, compensation, increased autonomy, new responsibilities, and other acknowledgements of their great work can help increase their level of engagement.

#5 Everyone is responsible for increasing their own engagement

Some managers believe employees are solely responsible for their own engagement. However, engagement is a two-way street. Just like any relationship, you need participation from both sides—in this case, the employee and the manager representing the company—in order to have a great relationship. Putting the onus on employees is a bit lazy. As a leader, you must reflect on your contributions (or lack thereof) in facilitating employee engagement.

Or put more simply, if you want an engaged team, you yourself must be engaged.

#6 Leaders are inherently engaged

Speaking of engaged leaders, not all leaders are automatically engaged with the company. Your level of engagement will fluctuate over time, so it’s entirely possible a once-highly-engaged leader no longer feels the connection they once did. With leadership promotions come responsibilities that are neither enjoyable nor avoidable. Leaders are more likely to hear negative news—problems, deficiencies, and gaps that need to be filled—than they are to hear positive news. After all, leaders help guide teams when they need it, and most people don’t ask for help when things are going well.

Additionally, leaders are less likely to receive praise than individual contributors. It’s uncommon for employees to thank their boss for doing a great job with corrective action. Or intervening in something they believe they could have handled themselves. Or declining a raise request. These things are difficult for leaders and can eventually wear them down.

As mentioned earlier, engagement is a two-way street. One way to combat disengagement in leadership is to lean on individual contributors who recognize why leaders do what they do. “Great micromanagement, boss!” is a phrase you’ll probably never hear. But employees can commend leaders on offering guidance in difficult situations, asking questions that re-frame problems, and regularly reminding everyone how their work contributes to the company’s greater purpose.

#7 Leaders can't create a culture of engagement

It’s often said that company culture can’t come from the top down. While this is true in one sense, it’s false in another. Certainly, every person on your team influences the culture that exists in your company. However, the actions and attitudes of company leadership demonstrate what is expected of people and what is acceptable. A leader who complains to his direct reports can expect that his direct reports will complain to their subordinates as well. A leader who praises his team and builds them up when they need help can expect team members to do the same.

Therefore, don’t wash your hands of attempts to improve culture or increase engagement just because you have a fancy title. Recognize that you are a representative for the company and that your words and actions indicate what the company truly values. This demonstrative leadership will send signals to your team, indicating what you value and what you want them to value. You absolutely drive team engagement, whether you realize it or not.

#8 Engagement is the result of a good culture

Building a great company culture is no accident. Neither is a high level of engagement. Both are the result of a disciplined leadership team consistently promoting their desired behaviors and attitudes. The key word is discipline. Company culture and employee engagement are not natural outcomes of a one-and-done attempt to make things better. Leaders are responsible for regularly engaging team members.

This is why so many companies have weekly all-hands meetings. It’s an opportunity for company leadership to reset expectations, share what good and bad things are happening across the company, and lay out a vision for the future. Group settings like all-hands meetings are great for explaining the direction you want for the company. However, it must be supplemented with one-on-one interactions as well. Individually meeting with every direct report—formally or informally, it doesn’t matter—at least weekly is a good first step.

Ideally, you are in continuous conversation with your closest team members. This is not only so you can reinforce the company vision. It’s also so you can hear about small issues before they become big problems. A constant, open dialog with team members gives you an opportunity to identify and fix problems quickly. This action reinforces the notion that you (the company) care about them (the individual team member) and want them to have a great place to work.

#9 Engagement is something you can buy

There are countless employee engagement suites available in the marketplace. There’s also an army of business coaches, leadership coaches, executive coaches, team engagement exercise leaders, and other funky-titled contractors willing to give you peace of mind for a bit of cash. However, all of these resources are just a part of the picture. They can be a guiding light that can bolster your engagement efforts, but they can not replace the day-to-day work of your company leadership.

It’s important to have the right education, tools, processes, and support in place to facilitate high levels of employee engagement. However, those things are not enough. Remember, employee engagement is an emotional connection and commitment to your organization. You can’t buy your way into an emotional connection. You have to work at building that rapport with each individual team member, every single day.

#10 Highly engaged teams win “best company” awards

Another common misconception is that “great place to work” or “best employer” awards are won by highly engaged teams. While there may be some strong correlation there, companies with high employee satisfaction are the most likely to win these awards. Certainly, highly engaged teams tend to be more satisfied. However, engagement and satisfaction are separate objectives that are driven by separate types of action.

There are immense benefits to having high engagement, though, even if it doesn’t guarantee your company will win prestigious awards. Highly engaged teams are more likely to hit company goals and objectives, retain team members, and attract top talent. So while you may not be standing on stage giving an acceptance speech any time soon, your highly engaged team will be winning at things that matter more to your company’s purpose.

#11 Engaged employees will be loyal to the company no matter what

An employee’s level of engagement is a moment in time. Engagement levels go up and down depending on the team member’s interaction with others, ability to meet goals and objectives, and several other motivating factors. Today’s highly engaged employee may be tomorrow’s resignation letter.

It is therefore important to continuously monitor employee engagement. Identify when someone’s level of engagement drops so you can respond appropriately and get them back to a happy place. You can monitor engagement through engagement software such as Pulse or through personal interactions and observations. Everyone has an off day now and then, but if you recognize someone struggling to stay motivated for several days or weeks, you may be witnessing a drop-off in engagement.

#12 Employee engagement is a cost center

As mentioned earlier, there are many tools and resources available to help you increase employee engagement: software, coaches, books, and so on. At first glance, these investments may feel like unnecessary costs that you will not recoup. Many HR teams who initiate employee engagement programs can face challenges justifying these expenses.

However, high levels of employee engagement actually save the company money in the long term. Highly engaged teams are less likely to experience significant turnover. This alone brings savings that justify the time and money investment into facilitating employee engagement. Additionally, high engagement can be used as a recruiting marketing tool, reducing the cost to recruit and hire new employees. In addition to the costs associated with addressing employee attrition, long-term employee retention and development can give your company new opportunities. Highly engaged teams are more likely to promote from within, giving you a competitive advantage when it comes time to fill new leadership positions in high-demand and low-supply talent pools.

Squash the myths about employee engagement

Now that you understand the truth behind the myths about employee engagement, are you ready to improve engagement on your team? Start by measuring the current levels of employee engagement, identifying areas for improvement, and tailoring your interactions with each team member based on what they care about most.

Insight is our employee engagement platform, and it will help you do exactly that. It gives you individualized, guided action plans to facilitate engagement with every single team member.