While working with clients earlier this month, I began thinking about the reasons behind creating surveys to find out if employees are satisfied with their jobs. Business thinking in the early 1900s would have thought this was crazy. After all, we pay our workers, provide some with health insurance and often compensate them while they are on vacation - all benefits that were unheard of a century ago. So what’s up with employee satisfaction? Does it predict performance at work? Or is there something more we need to be asking?

To begin exploring employee satisfaction, let’s determine a definition. Typical employee satisfaction surveys determine job satisfaction by asking for feedback on several aspects of an individual’s job, including pay, benefits, paid holidays and vacation, working hours, working conditions and training.

When you turn to the Internet to explore this concept further, a search for employee satisfaction surveys resulted in nearly 5 million hits. Believe me when I tell you there are a lot of companies selling employee satisfaction survey templates. When researching the trends in employee satisfaction, the current trend of “employee engagement surveys” surfaces. Employee engagement can be defined as the relationship between an organization and its employees. Rather than a “one-way” relationship as defined by employee satisfaction, employee engagement is portrayed as a “two-way” relationship with responsibilities and accountabilities on both parties.

This raises two questions:

  1. Is it possible to have satisfied employees who are not engaged at work? 
  2. Do organizations with engaged employees outperform those with satisfied employees?

Based on feedback from management in many of the organizations with whom I have worked, the answer to the first question is a resounding “yes!” While we may not notice it or define it in this manner, satisfied employees who are not engaged can be considered “retired on the job.” In this case, “retired” doesn’t mean not working. These employees still come to work and collect a paycheck. Rather, it can be described as employees who are content to punch in and perform their assigned job duties but nothing more. They keep their heads down and fly under the radar. When projects or new initiatives come up, they aren’t asked to do any “extra” work since they typically aren’t on the radar screen like those who are open or willing.

On the flip side, engaged employees are willing to do more than the bare minimum. These employees are emotionally invested in their own success and the success of their organizations. Along with knowledge, skills and abilities, they bring passion and commitment to their jobs. Engaged employees put discretionary effort into their work. They go the extra mile. For example, if a process is flawed, these employees are often willing to figure out the underlying causes for the flaws and to explore possible solutions instead of muddling through with a broken process.

The answer to the second question is also a resounding “yes!” My clients all confirm that employee engagement not only increases performance, but is directly related to business success. Research conducted in organizations throughout various industries also confirms that organizations with high employee engagement typically outperform those with low engagement scores.

If strengthening employee engagement is something you would like to do, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. Give employees something to believe in and strive for. Your mission, vision and values need to be more than just statements on the wall. They need to be part of what every employee does every day in their own jobs. Employees should understand how they personally contribute to achieving the organization’s mission in order to feel a sense of purpose in their work.
  2. Make an effort to align your employees’ experiences within the organization with the experiences you would like your customers to have. Think of Southwest Airlines. Their employees are known for having fun. Some of the flight attendants could be stand-up comedians. This is why flying on Southwest can be a fun experience for travelers.
  3. When hiring, it’s essential to have the right people in the right jobs. Knowledge, skills, and abilities are essential, and having an estimator with extraordinary abilities is certainly a benefit to the business. However, you also need to make sure the estimator exhibits emotional intelligence. Research on emotional intelligence confirms that high performers understand themselves and others well and are able to manage relationships in positive ways. In other words, they play nice with others, including co-workers and clients.
  4. If there are problem people in your organization, you need to address the issues and deal with them. Why? Because “free riders” keep productive workers distracted and resentful. Leaders need to make it very clear to problem employees that their behavior will not be tolerated. If they need help, provide it. If they are just causing trouble, help them find their next opportunity by showing them the door.

 Above all, listen. Leaders and managers need to ask employees how they are doing and pay attention to the factors that affect their engagement. The only way you will know what people need and want is to ask. It’s amazing what you will hear if people are given the opportunity. While all requests probably can’t be met, the simple acts of asking, listening and then providing feedback when possible send the message that you are interested and they are valued, increasing employee engagement and overall company morale.