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What’s the Difference Between Employee Engagement and Employee Satisfaction?

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The term “employee engagement” has been around for some time. Executive coaches, consultants and HR managers have been telling us for years that employees must be more than satisfied (for, as with a filling Thanksgiving dinner, satisfaction rarely yields productivity). In addition to satisfaction, we’re told, we must strive to make employees engaged. 

If you’re unsure of the distinction—that difference between satisfaction and engagement—you’re not alone. To help you, each day this week Excellence in Government, will bring you a story to help you understand, improve and develop employee engagement.

But first, let's start with the difference between the two terms:

Employee satisfaction means exactly what you’d think: A satisfied employee is happy to clock in and out, doing what is asked of them and little more. A satisfied employee has their needs met by the organization and may not have an incentive to go above and beyond.

Employee engagement, on the other hand, means something quite different. An engaged employee is emotionally invested in the mission of the organization. They bring themselves to their job and something that can’t be feigned: commitment. An engaged employee looks for ways they can give back to the organization and seeks to leave a legacy of high performance in their wake.

(Feeling Engaged? Share your voice in GovExec's largest employee engagement study)

To put it more succinctly, and to paraphrase the overused (and, in the case of the federal worker, particularly relevant) words of President John Kennedy, the engaged fed asks not what their country can do for them — they ask what they can do for their country.

The key phrase to understanding the basics of engagement is “discretionary effort.” It’s the traditional definition and is used to identify those employees who deliver more than is expected of them to further the mission of their organization. Want to find your high performers—your most engaged employees—look no further than those with high discretionary effort.

But not even that fully encompasses what it means to be “engaged” in one’s work. Today, social scientists continue to discover that motivational drivers are far more complex than once thought and so engagement varies tremendously based on changing factors. Today, the buzzword de jour among human capital thinkers is “sustainable engagement.” Looked at through this lens, engagement is a long-term strategy and goal, not a one-time push to improve productivity by coaxing employees to work harder.

“Sustainable engagement” requires employees be driven by more than fluctuating variables such as interesting projects or extrinsic motivators like monetary commissions (though yes, in many cases monetary incentives do drive engagement). Knowing the unique challenges of being a federal employee and that mission is not achieved overnight, managers must see to their employees’ physical, social, and mental well-beings to keep them motivated over the long-term. That is sustainable engagement; not just the willingness to put in extra effort, but also the capacity to do so. Over the next week we’ll explore the “how” and “why” of this kind of engagement.

As of today, the federal government does not yet have a comprehensive tool to measure engagement on the scale of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). However, Government Executive has launched a survey to measure engagement across the federal government. Answer a few short questions and help create the most complete picture of employee engagement in federal agencies to date:

Click here to take GovExec’s five-minute survey on employee engagement.

Image via Doglikehorse/

Clement Christensen is a research analyst at the Government Business Council. He holds an undergraduate degree in International Affairs and Anthropology from the George Washington University.

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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