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Is It Possible for an Employee to Be Too Engaged?

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: We've been spending a lot of time and effort trying to increase employee engagement, but I wonder if there's a downside to high engagement? Maybe I'm being negative, but I'm just curious.

A: We know organizations with engaged employees tend to deliver better results and provide stronger customer service. However, you bring up a really interesting question.

The first consideration is, how do we define engagement? Many employers think having an engaged workforce means you have employees who are happy all the time, when in reality, we should be thinking of engagement in terms of how productive, creative, innovative, and motivated employees are. Those are the qualities of employees who help drive an organization to success.

There isn't a lot of research out there on this topic, but people are beginning to see some potential downsides to a highly engaged workforce, depending on whether engagement has more to do with happiness or work habits.

The long-tenure employee. What if your happiest employees are not your most productive? I see this happening when you have a lot of long-time staffers who love where they work and love their coworkers and their leadership. They wouldn't think of working anywhere else. However, these employees have been doing their job for so long they may not have had a new idea since the last century. But they'd score high on any employee satisfaction survey.

We should be thinking of engagement in terms of how productive, creative, innovative, and motivated employees are.

The complacent staffer. What if you have happy employees who aren't keeping up with current trends in their field or developing new skills? These employees may be really satisfied with their job and glad they work for you, but they aren't contributing. This is one of the toughest situations because you may need to suggest that these employees move on.

The workaholic. What if you have employees who have become so involved in their work that they overlook the other important areas of their lives? Studies have shown that this type of highly engaged workers have more work-life balance issues because they sometimes fail to take time away from the job. These may be the people who are answering email all weekend or who never take a vacation or even a long weekend to recharge. When they finally burn out, it's not going to matter how engaged they once were!

This is definitely a gray area in management, and more research needs to be done. But generally speaking, high employee engagement—where workers are creative, motivated, and productive—is a good thing. Just keep an eye out for these few potential problem areas.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you'd like her to answer in "Ask the Expert"? Send it to [email protected]

Performance Management Employee Retention Organizational Culture