Guest Writer - Paul Herr
Principal Consultant at Paul Herr Consulting

Clearing up the Confusion Around “Employee Engagement”

By Paul Herr, Author of “Primal Management: Unraveling the Secrets of Human Motivation that Drive High Performance.”

In the first blog in this series, I concluded that employee-engagement surveys are here to stay because they measure a special type of motivation that links directly to business success.

Unfortunately, there is a fly in the ointment. The term “employee engagement” is a conceptual“train wreck,” and most of the big HR consulting firms disagree on how to define it and how to measure it. In this blog I will explain how the “train”came off the “tracks” and how to get it back on.

Gallup used powerful statistical tools to figure out what makes people excel at work. The end result of this number-crunching was Gallup’s classic Q12® survey(see Blog 1). All of the questions in the Q12® survey were chosen because they were the ones, out of the many tested, that statistically correlated with business success. Here is how the Gallup Organization describes the history of the Q12® survey on its website.

Gallup conducted decades of research - writing, testing, and refining thousands of question items to find the ones that would best measure employee engagement. In1996, Gallup finalized the 12 question items that consistently and powerfully link to business outcomes, including profitability, employee retention, productivity, safety records, and customer engagement. From1996 to 2012, nearly 25 million employees in almost 3 million workgroups from195 countries have completed Gallup's Q12® survey.

As you can see, statistical-correlation (the “powerful link “mentioned by Gallup)was the only criteria for inclusion in the Q12® survey, so if a question seemed strange, but correlated with business success, it was “IN.” Gallup labeled this statistical correlation “employee engagement.”

Sadly, the Q12® survey is missing an explanatory theory for understandingWHY these 12 questions are so darned important. This is a major weakness, because people don’t like to be left hanging. They want closure. They want to understand “WHY?”

TheGallup organization scrambled to piece together an explanatory model based on the positive-psychology literature and published their ideas in books like“Vital Friends,” “How Full is Your Bucket,” “Wellbeing, “and the “StrengthsFinder” books. Personally, I love these books and think they are on the right track, but they don’t represent a coherent framework for understanding the inner workings of employee engagement.

From Bad to Worse

Things became much more confusing when ALL of the major HR consulting firms jumped onto the employee-engagement fray with their own, branded, proprietary, employee-engagement surveys, also based on statistical analysis. This was a problem because all of the resulting surveys had questions that were different than the Q12® survey, and different from each other. Imagine the poor executives trying to make sense of this conceptual pile-up.

Even the academic community was confused by the term “employee engagement” because it was developed by consulting firms outside of the normal channels of academic research; such as peer review, and independent experimental replication of results. Academic researchers, frankly, don’t quite know what to make of“employee engagement” either.

So, as you can see, the academic community is confused, the business community is confused, and, frankly, I’m confused. Who can rescue us from this motivational muddle?

The Conference Board and the Harvard Business School to the Rescue

In2006, The Conference Board, a respected HR-industry think-tank based in NewYork, came to the rescue with a meta-analysis that compared the main employee-engagement approaches side-by-side. This meta-analysis concluded that“employee engagement” boils down to an emotional and intellectual connection between employees and their employers that results in improved performance. TheConference Board report cited a study by the Corporate Leadership Council showing that the emotional factors are 4 times more important than the intellectual ones in driving performance. The Conference Board study gives us a credible starting point for untangling the employee-engagement train wreck.  

Two academic researchers, Nitin Nohria, the dean of the Harvard Business School, and Paul Lawrence, an organizational-behavior pioneer, also came to the rescue with their 2002 book, “Driven,” and Paul Lawrence’s 2011, follow-up book,“Driven to Lead.” These books summarized a massive effort to distill the existing scientific research on employee motivation, from a wide range of academic disciplines, into a simple, but powerful, 4-drive model of employee motivation. Human beings, they argue, evolved theses drives to incentivize the crucial behaviors needed for human survival: innovation, mastery, achievement, and teamwork.  

TheHarvard team built their new model from scratch, using evolutionary logic to piece together the research findings, bit by logical bit, like a mathematical proof. The Harvard team statistically tested the 4-drive model at 300,Fortune-500 companies and the results were written up in a 2008 HarvardBusiness Review article titled, “A Powerful New Model of Employee Motivation.”

The4-drive model, Nohria concluded, explained 60% of overall employee motivation, compared to just 30% for the next best model tested. This means that the4-drive model was twice as good at explaining what motivates employees compared to the next best approach.

The four drives, I believe, CREATE the “emotional connection” that the ConferenceBoard discovered in its meta-analysis. I met with John Gibbons, one of the authors of the Conference Board study, in New York City in 2008. He thought theHarvard 4-drive model provided a marvelous explanation for the emotional connection he discovered at the core of employee engagement.

These drives motivate the productive behaviors that all companies desire, namely: innovation, mastery, achievement, and collaboration. In other words, these are not lazy pleasures, but productive pleasures, like the euphoria of a win. WhenTiger Woods pumps his fist after sinking a 40 foot putt, that’s the achievement pleasure in action. When these universal drives are satisfied, employees experience emotional pleasure and feel engaged, and when they are starved, they experience emotional pain and feel disengaged. Here is now famed neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, summed up the situation in his book, TheFeeling of What Happens, “Nature seduces us into good behavior (with rewarding feelings).”

The Employee Experience

The four drives explain a lot besides employee engagement. For example, the“employee experience” is also tightly connected to the four drives. For example, companies that design the workplace to satisfy all four drives provide four “flavors” of reward that employees crave. If we sum up these workplace feelings, both positive and negative, the resulting total IS the employee experience.

Employees are supposed to feel good at work because positive feelings signal that we are operating at our best. If we experience pain in the workplace, “Houston, we have a problem,” because the brain is signaling a malfunction.

Our task is now clear. If companies want to supercharge their motivational engines, they need to “gamify” the workplace—create workplaces that are so interesting and rewarding that employees might even pay for the opportunity to play. This is a serious game, however, where the winners dominate the marketplace.


In summary, the Conference Board helped untangle the employee engagement “train wreck” by boiling the concept down to “an emotional and intellectual connection” to the workplace, but where the emotional connection dominates. TheHarvard team of Nohria and Lawrence further clarified the situation by explaining the four universal drives that form the “emotional connection.” Now that the employee engagement “train” is back on its “tracks,” we can get somewhere.

TheHarvard model also explains “the employee experience” in a simple and straightforward fashion. In the remainder of this blog series I will explain how companies can maximize financial gain by tapping into the energy of the four drives. I will explain how create human-friendly workplaces, with a positive employee experience, where people would pay for the opportunity to play. In blog 3, we will take a deeper dive into the Harvard model and how it can be used to gamify the workplace.

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