High levels of engagement could actually be damaging for organisations and their employees if one dimensional engagement surveys mask the types of engagement at play within an organisation. That’s according to new research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Kingston University Business School’s Centre for Research in Employment, Skills and Society (CRESS), which found an important distinction between transactional and emotional engagement.

The research found that employees that are transactionally engaged (i.e. engaged only with the task or job role at hand) may respond positively to engagement surveys and display the outward behaviours associated with engagement, but are less likely to perform well and will quickly leave for a better offer. However, those that are emotionally engaged (i.e. engaged with the organisation’s mission and values), are more likely to perform, have higher levels of wellbeing and are more likely to remain engaged through good times and bad.

The researchers identified transactional engagement as being shaped by employees’ concern to earn a living and to meet minimal expectations of the employer and their co-workers. In the majority of instances, people’s positive feelings about their work stemmed from the job or task itself, from the challenge, variety and autonomy that their role bestowed on them, and the gratifying ability to see the fruits of their labour. Emotional engagement, meanwhile, is associated with different aspects of work that go beyond the job role itself, including colleagues, line managers, business unit, the organisation and clients or customers. It is driven by a desire on the part of employees to do more for the organisation than is normally expected and in return they receive more in terms of a greater and more fulfilling psychological contract.

High levels of transactional engagement were found to be potentially damaging for both individuals and the organisations they work for. Employees who are transactionally engaged report higher levels of stress and difficulties in achieving a work-life balance than those employees who are emotionally engaged. What’s more, transactionally engaged employees are more likely to indulge in behaviour which might actually damage the organisation than their emotionally engaged counterparts.

Angela Baron, research adviser at the CIPD, comments: “While we definitely encourage organisations to measure engagement, it’s not enough for organisations to focus on increasing their engagement scores without considering what type and locus of engagement is being measured. What people are engaged with, and the nature and driving force behind their engagement, also need taking into consideration – otherwise organisations risk misunderstanding the actual extent and nature of engagement. For example, transactionally engaged employees are likely to answer survey questions positively or be willing to take on extra work because they believe that is how they will achieve their desired ends. Whilst not being disengaged, in deciding how they will deploy their efforts they are more likely to act in self-interest than in the best interests of the organisation.

“To add to this complexity, people may be emotionally engaged with certain loci of their job and transactionally engaged with others, and the behaviours they demonstrate could be difficult to distinguish. For example, someone may provide excellent customer service because they are emotionally engaged with the customer or organisation they work for, or simply because they are transactionally engaged and know it is expected of them. What’s more, someone may be emotionally engaged with their profession and perhaps even their clients, but only transactionally engaged with their current role and organisation. This is why interpretation of engagement scores needs to be carefully underpinned with insight from line managers and HR practitioners with the ability to identify the different dimensions at play in the workplace.”