Measuring Employee Engagement

1 June 2012 | David Widdowson

A new study highlights the importance of relying on more than just scores from employee surveys in measuring levels of employee engagement in an organisation.

The Research

Employee engagement is a hot topic. Many organisations seek the competitive advantage offered by employees who are engaged – happy, effective and motivated – in their work in good times as well as bad.

The study, carried out by the CIPD and Kingston University Business School, highlights a potential pitfall for organisations that seek to measure levels of engagement primarily by scoring systems in employee surveys. It focuses on the difference between what it terms “transactional engagement” and “emotional engagement”.

Employees who are engaged in the intrinsic nature of the work they do and the job at hand are regarded as “transactionally engaged”. As such, although they may respond positively to questions directed at job satisfaction and personal fulfilment, they tend to see their work primarily as being a means to earning a living and meeting basic expectations of the business and their colleagues. They may not, therefore be really engaged with the organisation in which they work and its values and objectives. As a result there is no correlation with organisational loyalty and so may result in the employee leaving when times get tough or they find a better offer. Indeed, high levels of transactional engagement could be positively damaging for the business, being associated with high levels of stress and unhappiness with work/life balance.

Those who are “emotionally engaged”, however, – engaged with the organisation and its values and objectives – are much more likely to perform at a high level and remain with the organisation through good times and bad. They tend to focus beyond their own role to colleagues and customers, being motivated by a desire to do more for the organisation than just their job and its tasks.

The survey gives the example of two employees, both of whom provide excellent customer service. A transactionally engaged employee may provide this because he knows this is what is expected of him and his primary motivation is to meet that expectation. This does not show disengagement as such but means the individual is more likely to act in self interest and leave for a competitor if he can improve his role and reward. The one who is emotionally engaged, however, does so because he focuses on the customer because of the organisation’s values and objectives and is far more likely to remain with the organisation performing highly in the long term.


This important difference may not be revealed simply by looking at improvements in scores from successive employee surveys. Transactionally engaged employees may answer questions about job satisfaction positively because they think that is what is expected of them and do not want to run the risk of appearing disloyal or critical. The survey shows that, to get a more accurate picture, care should be taken both with survey design and in analysing the answers given on a more detailed basis than just a score as well as direct observation from HR and line managers on the ground. This will be important to ensure the organisation does not have a false impression of the extent to which its employees are truly engaged with it and so risk losing out in the battle to retain and nurture talent.


Emotional or transactional engagement – does it matter?

For further information or to discuss the issues raised, please contact Guy Abbiss or David Widdowson on +44 (0)20 3051 5711.


Content is for general information purposes only. The information provided is not intended to be comprehensive and it does not constitute or contain legal or other advice. If you require assistance in relation to any issue please seek specific advice relevant to your particular circumstances. In particular, no responsibility shall be accepted by the authors or by Abbiss Cadres LLP for any losses occasioned by reliance on any content appearing on or accessible from this article. For further legal information click here.

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