Can Employee Performance Improve if Employee Engagement Doesn’t?

Yes, this is yet another “chicken or the egg” puzzle to solve.  Only the stakes here are higher.  If you don’t resolve the “chicken or the egg” question, you can still make an omelet for breakfast tomorrow—and probably next week as well.  However, if you cannot effectively address the “performance without engagement” dilemma, your business might not survive.  Given the scope of the risk, let me relieve the suspense and respond to the title question right up front.  The answer is a definitive, “yes, but…”

The question of whether you can have employee performance without employee engagement is the wrong one.

Sorry, that was cruel.  But, here is why I include a caveat. 

Technically, you can extract performance from an employee without first gaining their engagement.  You can force or manipulate them to perform.  You will get the result you want because your employees fear losing their jobs.  Example: My son once worked as a technical support representative for a business that handled calls from subscriber service companies (satellite TV, internet services, etc.).  Everyone in his role had to answer calls within a certain number of rings.  They also had to handle a certain number of calls per hour.  They couldn’t receive more than “x” number of complaints during a given calling cycle.   There were more requirements, but you get the idea.  If an employee missed the standards (by accumulating a certain number of “penalty points” within a given time period), he or she was let go. 

You can guess how engaged the company’s employees were and what the business’s retention rate was like.  They got the performance they needed, but at a high cost: no loyalty and no engagement.  (For the record, my son left the company on his own terms after the “job” had run its course and fulfilled its purpose for him.)

So, the question of whether you can get performance without engagement is really the wrong one.  Here’s a better question: Do you want employees to take ownership of their roles or do you just want them to do their job? 

Before you answer, let me explain what I mean.  Employees that take ownership of their roles adopt a stewardship mindset about the outcomes for which they are responsible.  They understand the strategic purpose of their contribution and why it matters.  They recognize how value is created and how it is eroded in the business.  They see themselves as integral to the growth of the company and are willing to make sacrifices to see the company succeed—because they believe in what it will mean for others (customers, suppliers, their community, their industry, etc.) and what it will mean for them.

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If you have an employee who has adopted a stewardship mindset, then you have an employee who is not only engaged but is committed to helping the company achieve sustained performance. 

4 Questions: Be, Do, Believe, Know

Assuming what I just described is what you are after, to achieve it you will need clear answers to the following four questions:  1) What do you want your employees to be?  2) What will your employees need to do in order to become what you want them to be?  3) What will your employees have to believe before they will do the things that will make them what you want them to be?  4) What will your employees need to know before they will believe that?

1. What do you want your employees to be? 

If you are aligned with the thinking I have presented so far in this article, the term you might consider using to answer that question is stewards.  Presumably, you want your employees to bring a sense of ownership to their roles where they demonstrate complete accountability for results—both short and long-term.

2. What will your employees need to do if they are going to become stewards?

People who have a sense of stewardship think and act like owners in the approach they take to the outcomes for which they are responsible.   They exhibit a commitment to the goals and vision of company shareholders.  They are solution-centered and eschew excuse making; taking sole responsibility for getting the results their role exists to produce.  In broader terms, they create value beyond that attributable to shareholder assets already at work in the business.  They seek to have a strategic impact instead of simply “doing their job.”

3. What will your employees have to believe before they will do the things that will make them stewards?

Before your people will act in the way just described, they will need to believe that you view them as an essential growth partner in the realization of the future company you have envisioned.  This means they will have been convinced that the company is serving a worthy purpose and that it is less likely to fulfill it if their unique abilities are not at work in the business.  They will also need to believe that there is operational integrity and continuity in the way the company goes about dealing with its workforce.  For example:

  • It places people in roles for which they are distinctly suited and which serve a strategic purpose.
  • The company has a pay philosophy that defines how employees are rewarded for achieving both short and long-term performance standards.
  • There is line of sight within the organization; which means employees see a clear relationship between the vision of the company, its business model and strategy, their role in that model and strategy and what is expected of them in that role, and how they will be rewarded for fulfilling those expectations.
  • Employees find personal and professional fulfillment in their roles and believe that they are improving faster through their role in your organization than they would elsewhere.
  • The organization has a compelling approach to rewarding those primarily responsible for creating value and providing strategic leadership.

There is more, but you get the idea.

4. What will your employees need to know before they will believe that?

Before employees will accept that they are a true growth partner in your business, they will need to gain a clear understanding of their role and where it fits in the business model and strategy of your company.  They will need to know how “success” is defined for their role and the outcomes for which they are accountable.  Before they completely buy-in and commit, they will need to know what resources will be available to them to fulfill their responsibilities and produce the results you are looking for.

In addition, they will want to know how their performance will be evaluated and what kind of coaching and guidance they will receive.  They will need to understand the principles and values that under-gird how people are treated within your organization and what it means to “fit in” culturally. 

Be, Do, Believe Know: Using this construct in your approach to people development within your company will make the question about the relationship between employee engagement and employee performance largely irrelevant.  If you use the reverse engineering process just outlined as a template for encouraging your employees to become true stewards of their roles, engagement will naturally emerge and sustained performance will follow.


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