Performance v Engagement: Who’s in the Driver’s seat?

I recently read two articles on staff engagement that seem to be in direct conflict with each other.

The first article, referencing Aon Hewitt Best Employer research, claimed that the one constant in an ever changing technological, political and regulatory business landscape has been the upward trend and focus on employee engagement, with companies realising how crucial an engaged workforce is to their success. The author, Stephen Hickey, partner at Aon Hewett argued that there is empirical evidence that links high engagement levels to better business outcomes and proof that companies that focus on their people will notice a positive impact on their bottom line. In fact, they claim that those organisations with the highest engagement levels deliver, on average, 9% more profit per employee because of increased productivity.


In contrast to that view, the second article that I read suggested that the term ‘engagement’ is ‘abused, misunderstood, not evidence-based and is a minefield’.  This article by lead Partner Robert Bolton of KPMG’s global HR Transformation Centre of Excellence called for the ‘weeding out of one of the longest running rackets in HR: the annual engagement survey’! The author claims that hard evidence is mounting that contrary to popular belief, engagement doesn’t drive performance. In fact, the inverse is true, performance drives engagement.

So clearly, these two views represent two polarised opinions on the question of how we get the best out of our employees, how do we connect with them and ensure they are engaged with our business, and whether this has any impact on business performance in any case.  

At recoveriescorp, we have focused very heavily on finding ways to improve staff engagement.  We have spent a lot of time and investment in developing our culture,  embedding our icare values,  creating forums to keep our staff informed on how we are performing as a business, in reward and recognition programs aligned to high performance, in setting performance expectations upfront with staff and giving them regular feedback on how they are progressing and in providing them with a number of learning and development opportunities to continually build their skills and knowledge and support career progression. We’ve also introduced a cultural diversity program to celebrate the many cultural backgrounds of our staff and a Corporate Social Responsibility program to provide our staff with the opportunity to contribute to the wider community.  The implementation of all these initiatives, we believe, represents a very significant attempt to improve and continually build staff engagement. We measure our progress at quarterly intervals and intermittently with pulse surveys.

But is the critical success factor for determining staff engagement really just about their performance and being part of a successful company?  What do people really want from their jobs? Do they just want a higher salary and benefits? Is it more about job security, good relationships with co-workers, opportunities for growth and advancement and a positive workplace– or is it something else altogether? 

Herzberg set out to answer these questions in the 60s with his Motivation-Hygiene Theory.  According to Herzberg, hygiene factors, such as dissatisfaction with salaries, working conditions, company policies and supervision, are what create dissatisfaction among employees in a workplace and need to be eradicated. However, Herzberg argued that it is the intrinsic factors of recognition, achievement, personal growth and the opportunity to do something meaningful that motivates an employee to higher performance.

Conversely, Bolton states that we are entering into an era of evidence-based people management. ‘. This approach is centred on ‘the human capital balance sheet’. Brian Burley in his book ‘The One Page Business Plan’ and in other publications refers to human capital management and RITAIR as the complete basis for HCM. It’s business management 101 to say that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So perhaps we need to take heed of Bolton’s view on evidenced-based HCM and performance.

Looking at both sides, I believe that the opportunity for continual learning and growth is a critical success factor for ensuring both high performance and engagement. This doesn’t just mean training before they start a role. It also means whether or not the business is attuned to the specific talents of each individual and the areas that need strengthening. The business should be able to provide the right learning and development opportunities at the right time and targeted to the right people so that they can continually perform at a high level.

The vast majority of employees want to perform at their best because it gives them pride in their work (the rest incidentally should be part of a refresh turnover). By helping staff to be the best that they can be, they feel connected to the business, empowered to be confident and highly skilled and it puts them in a position to be recognised and rewarded for their performance. People who achieve a high level of excellence are generally engaged and have a very positive view of the business. I believe that businesses today need to invest strongly in training and performance based activities as a facilitator for staff engagement. 

Staff engagement can’t simply be a metric that is measured once a year. Moreover, it is not a measure that can be viewed in isolation from all of the other key metrics for a business. 

Certainly, at recoveriescorp we have found that our focus on listening to our staff and taking on board their suggestions informally and formally on engagement and performance issues, influences their performance and engagement with the business. Indeed, we have concluded that empowering staff to perform at their best has had a very positive impact on our overall business success.   So does engagement lead to higher performance or higher performance lead to engagement? In the end, I think it’s clear that the two are inextricably linked. If you want your company to be a high performing business, make performance and engagement partners and reach for the sky.