Are some employees faking engagement?

In the workplace, high engagement’s good, low engagement’s bad and coasting along is far from ideal. All generalizations but most people would probably agree it’s a fair summary – and now here’s something else to throw into the mix.

Recent research has identified another category: employees who manage to make themselves look engaged and successful and as a result get ahead without actually achieving anything worthwhile. What kinds of problems is this causing – and could peer-to-peer recognition play a role in addressing it?

Meet the ‘pseudo-engaged’ 

The research was carried out by Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School in partnership with Oracle and Engage for Success. They were examining engagement levels, specifically to get insights into what impairs engagement in work teams. The study focused on 28 teams across seven different employment sectors including health, government, transport and not-for-profit.

There was one big headline from the research. It identified a section of the workforce who superficially looked highly engaged – but who were actually putting in considerably less effort than colleagues. As a result, they were damaging teamwork and productivity. Where their talents did lie was in their ability to appear as though they were doing a fantastic job.

They were motivated by ingratiating themselves with people higher up the organization and creating the impression they were busy doing wonderful things for the company. Self-promotion and getting into ‘the good books’ was the name of the game and as a result, they were successful in getting more promotions and better pay and bonuses than colleagues. Yet in reality, their lack of effort was reducing output.

To some extent ‘managing upwards’ is something we all do. Everyone wants to manage relationships with people higher up the organization as effectively as they can and employees should want to support managers in achieving their goals. But that’s not what’s going on with the pseudo-engaged.

The research shows they’re essentially gaming the system and undermining colleagues. They constantly look busy. They’ll often be in meetings. They’ll be very adept at getting involved in discussions that could work to their own advantage. Yet they’re actually contributing very little.

Why peer-to-peer recognition is too genuine for the pseudo-engaged

It’s an uncomfortable thought but could your company be unintentionally rewarding this kind of behavior? Has the managerial system developed in such a way that it’s actually nurturing fake engagement?

While very few companies would have an issue with employees being driven by personal success to some extent, you’d be pushed to find one who’d be happy about it happening at the cost of collective productivity.

How could peer-to-peer recognition play a role? By the way, it’s revolutionized how people are acknowledged in the workplace.

The old school approach was to recognize, reward and promote the ‘right’ people. What mattered was who was seen to be delivering and it was a system that could all too easily be played.

The pseudo-engaged would certainly have been positioning themselves to be the beneficiaries of these kinds of programs where manager reward was often distributed based on favorites. It offered an environment they could thrive and succeed in. Peer-to-peer recognition has a lot less to offer them. Appearing productive to reap rewards does not cut it.

Peer-to-peer recognition is about what people want to put in, not take out. One person’s view of who is the most deserving may not be the same as the next but that’s the point. It reflects a spectrum of views across an organization about what matters and what’s valuable. It’s a mechanism to appreciate and call out behavior that supports the values of the company, the wellbeing of one another and the cohesiveness of the team.

By enabling employees to express themselves, this form of recognition lets employees experience the benefit of being the one doing the thanking as well as getting the emotional wellbeing boost of being on the receiving end.

Participation increases through natural adoption and ultimately that contributes a culture where wellbeing becomes as, if not more, important as getting something for recognition of performance.

This isn’t an environment that the pseudo-engaged are likely to find particularly motivating. It’s not going to encourage a culture that will inadvertently be endorsing self- promoting behaviors.

Read more: Research that links employee engagement to customer loyalty

Instead, peer-to-peer recognition will be highlighting the employees who are doing good things for the organization. That in itself builds into a revealing bigger picture about the people who are motivating, valuing and taking the time to thank their colleagues.

Would that be a better starting point for working out who should be the ones who move on up through the organization? We’d say so.