The Difference Between Contented and Engaged Employees

AE Quarterly December 2018

If you asked any leader, they would agree emphatically that engaged employees are the backbone of successful organisations. Many are actively tracking their proportions of engaged and disengaged employees, and implementing measures to retain engaged employees and improve the engagement levels of the disengaged. For some reason, not as much attention seems to be paid to employees that are merely contented, i.e. neither engaged nor disengaged. One of the ways we measure employee engagement is using the Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS). It is a modified version of the popular Net Promoter Score (NPS), which is used to track customer loyalty. The eNPS is calculated using three steps:

  1. Employees are asked: On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being extremely unlikely and 10 being extremely likely, how likely are you to recommend your employer as a place to work to friends and family members?
  2. Those scoring their employers between 0 and 6 are considered to be Detractors; those providing scores of 7 or 8 are considered to be Passives; and, those providing scores of 9 or 10 are considered to be Promoters.
  3. The eNPS is calculated be subtracting the percentage of Detractors from the percentage of Promoters. The resulting score can therefore range from -100 (where all employees are Detractors) to +100 (where all employees are Promoters).

In an effort to improve their eNPS, many talent management professionals focus on improving the proportion of Promoters and/or decreasing the proportion of Detractors. Few target the Passives, or what we call the Contented, even though in many cases, the Contented make up the majority of their team. In their State of the Global Workplace 2017 report, researchers at Gallup found that “…just 15% of employees worldwide are engaged in their job. Two-thirds are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged”. In our 2017 study on the Employee View of the Employer Brand, which was conducted for the Barbados market, the results were much worse. Our study and the Gallup study used different measures of engagement and found that a similar proportion of employees were engaged (14%), but only 21% were contented, and the remaining 66% were disengaged.

In analysing the differences between employees that were Promoters and those that were Passives, three reasons emerged from our study that underscored why companies should care that their employees are merely content. The first, and perhaps most obvious, reason is that contentment is not engagement. While they may not be Detractors, contented employees are not Promoters either. The Gallup study explained that not engaged employees were “…psychologically unattached to their work and company. Because their engagement needs are not being full met, they’re putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work”. In our view, these employees are operating at minimum productivity and creative levels, merely showing up and doing their job in order to receive their pay cheque. They do not cross over into true disengagement, as they are not undermining their colleagues or bad mouthing the company to outsiders, but they are not giving of their best while at work.

When asked about their perceptions of their organisation as a place to work, they are less likely to opine that their organisation is a great place to work. As shown in Figure 1, almost all of engaged employees believed that their organisation was a great place to work, compared to only 73% of contented employees, and 85% of engaged employees believed that the market shares their view as opposed to only 67% of contented employees.

Figure 1: Perceptions of Organisation as a Place to Work (% that agreed with each statement)

Digging deeper into the data suggests that at least some of their relative dissatisfaction may be justified. Contented employees appear to be less likely to believe that their personal values and their employers’ values are aligned, and are also less likely to be aware of the organisation’s goals (see Figure 2). The differences between engaged and contented employees are even more pronounced when considering their levels of satisfaction with training and career advancement opportunities. The proportion of contented employees that are satisfied with available opportunities for career and professional advancement is less than half that of engaged employees, while roughly half of contented employees are satisfied with available training opportunities compared to three-quarters of engaged employees (see Figure 3). Contented employees are even less satisfied with the people they work with. As illustrated in Figure 4, 4 in every 5 engaged employees are happy with their co-workers and managers, compared to 3 in every 5 contented employees.

Figure 2: Value Alignment and Awareness of Organisational Goals (% that answered ‘yes’)

Figure 3: Satisfaction with Training and Professional Advancement Opportunities (% that agreed with each statement)

Figure 4: Satisfaction with Managers and Team Members (% that agreed with each statement)

The third reason to pay attention to contented employees is that they are already halfway out of the organisation. While only 5% of engaged employees were actively job-hunting at the time of our study, the percentage almost triples when considering contented employees. In fact, 20% of contented employees also noted that they would like to be working somewhere else within 12 months. Figure 6 shows the percentage of engaged and contented employees that indicated that they would be willing to leave their current organisation if their new organisation offered them a similar/lower salary with improved training opportunities/career advancement opportunities/corporate culture or a higher salary but worse corporate reputation. In some cases, engaged and contented employees were very similar, such as when offered the same salary and when offered a lower salary and better training opportunities. But in other cases they were notably different. For example, contented employees were more willing to work for an employer with a worse reputation if they could earn a higher salary (13% compared to 3% of engaged employees), and they would take a pay cut to access better career advancement opportunities (46% compared to 38% of engaged employees). Furthermore, simply providing an improved corporate culture may not be sufficient to tempt contented employees, as smaller proportions were willing to leave for an improved corporate culture and lower or similar salaries.

Figure 5: Willingness to Leave (% that answered ‘yes’)

Figure 6: Willingness to Leave – Salary Changes (% that answered indicated that they would be willing to leave)

Merely contented employees do not drive organisational excellence, engaged employees do. Although tracking engagement is essential, it can also be distracting, encouraging companies to focus on what moves the score in the case of the eNPS, as opposed to developing measures to truly improve engagement and lift contented employees into the realm of promoters. Traditional salary and benefits packages do not appear to be enough. To engage employees, you must also consider other perks, such as training and career advancement, as well as organisational health factors, including corporate culture and the quality of teams and their members.

About the author(s)

Stacia Howard is the Managing Director of Antilles Economics.

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