Satisfaction vs Engagement

Satisfaction vs Engagement

Many managers mistakenly think increasing employee satisfaction with a bunch of perks like gym passes, ping pong tables, and an organic food court will increase employee motivation and engagement and correct a negative culture, but satisfaction is a complex system in itself, so let’s break it down.

Hygiene factors play a big role in determining a person’s level of satisfaction with their job and strongly influence employee retention. Hygiene factors consist of pay and benefits, supervision, working conditions, and job security (among others). If they aren’t there, they lead to negative culture and cause employees to look for better opportunities elsewhere.

Let’s look at an example. A number of years ago, a large automobile manufacturer contacted us with a concern that had a tremendous impact on their levels of employee morale. Several employees had reported being robbed in the parking lot while leaving the assembly plant at night. The final straw that prompted the call was when an employee was assaulted, leaving the employee bruised and in poor shape. This led to a negative culture. The manufacturer reached out to us to help them understand what, specifically, they needed to do in order to restore the level of employee confidence in their safety and well-being.

For these employees (and employees anywhere, for that matter), safety was not something that motivated them or got them excited to come to work. It was a hygiene factor. Being safe did not cause satisfaction, but taking away their safety (robberies, assault, etc.) quickly caused them to become dissatisfied and demotivated in their jobs. While safety is certainly not a perk, it illustrates an important reality: Constantly introducing more and better hygiene factors doesn’t increase job satisfaction or performance, but the lack of these factors could cause huge declines in satisfaction.

Blame the adaptation principle. Psychological research says that when someone jumps to a higher level of income or a new standard of living, they quickly adapt and become dissatisfied again. If you try to buy employee satisfaction by upgrading perks and hygiene factors, the price always goes up. Give employees a bonus, and they want a bigger bonus. Build them a gym, and they’ll expect a gym with a pool. Taco Tuesdays? Great! But the company down the street also gets Margarita Mondays. That’s not greed; it’s human nature.

Here’s the rub: While you must have employee satisfaction in order to have employee engagement (and you can’t have lasting engagement without it), satisfaction factors on their own don’t lead to engagement. Satisfaction is just the price of admission.

Satisfaction is transactional and contractual. In return for their work, you promise to provide employees with the basics: compensation, tools and resources, physical safety, dignity, and respect, to name a few. Both the organization and the employee must continue to make constant deposits in the relationship “bank account,” and both sides continually monitor their account activity. For every withdrawal on either side, a deposit must be made. When there’s an imbalance on either side, a deposit must be made or a deficit, employee apathy or employer resentment leading to negative culture, results.

Satisfaction is transactional and contractual.

You’ve created a transactional environment when:

  • The main goal is maximum productivity; employees operate according to guidelines so thoughtless that activity seems automated
  • Employees are commodities who can easily be replaced, and they know it
  • It involves management, rather than leadership
  • Conformity is valued over creativity
  • A “what’s-in-it-for-me” entitlement mentality is pervasive
  • The culture is a give-and-take of negotiated compromises. When something is given, a commensurate reward is always expected
  • Reciprocal trust is low between individuals and leaders
  • The same issues and mistakes are continually repeated. Effort is not dedicated to creating an environment in which people learn, nor are they motivated to improve or correct past mistakes
  • Focus is on working longer and harder, rather than smarter
  • People are motivated to work just hard enough not to get fired. There is little or no discretionary effort. It’s about the paycheck. You get exactly what you pay for, and employees often remind you of that fact

Satisfied employees will put out as much effort as they are compensated for, and no more. They deliver on what is asked of them, as long as you deliver on your part of the deal. They show up and do their work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to say no when the phone rings and it’s a headhunter on the other end.

For the most part, management owns satisfaction. They cut the checks, deliver the benefits, and pay for the perks. There’s no sense of “we’re in this together” on the part of management or the employee. It’s truly contractual.

Employee EngagementEngagement is very different:

  • Satisfaction is transactional; engagement is transformational
  • The organization owns and controls satisfaction; employer and employee have a 50-50 responsibility for engagement
  • Satisfaction and motivation involve only feelings; engagement involves feelings but requires action
  • Satisfaction is about temporary happiness; engagement is about long-term feelings of purpose, belonging, growth, and personal accomplishment
  • Satisfaction is imposed on employees from without; employees choose to be engaged
  • Satisfaction occurs when hygiene factors are met; engagement occurs when employees have the capacity, reason, freedom and know-how to engage1
  • Satisfaction is about hygiene factors, which do not necessarily motivate people but when taken away can cause them to become demotivated. Engagement is about hearts, spirits, hands and minds
  • With satisfaction, you get out exactly what you put in; with engagement, you get a multiple of what you put in
  • Satisfaction is a zero-sum game in which employers and employees do the minimum in order to fulfill the contract; engagement contributes to “peak experiences” that make employees eager to give extra, discretionary effort
  • Satisfaction is expensive. Raises, perks, and office extras cost a lot of money. Engagement can cost nothing but requires a conscious effort
  • Satisfaction is about surviving; engagement is about thriving


This article is an excerpt from “How to Avoid Creating a Negative Culture of Cynicism and Sabotage” by Tracy Maylett on September 13, 2016.  Maylett is the Chief Executive Officer of DecisionWise, and co-author of the award-winning book, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement. Courtesy of  

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