In a rush to improve engagement and productivity, employers may be overlooking one human factor: inconsistency, according to a new study from researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Numerous factors could play into individual engagement, such as an employee’s personality or responsibilities outside of work. To get the best out of their employees, managers should set realistic goals for engagement based on the individual, the researchers said.
“A lot of the narrative these days is around trying to get employees to invest more of themselves in their jobs to extract higher performance,” Basima Tewfik, the lead study author and an assistant professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan, said in a statement.
“But this may not be a healthy approach,” she said. “Sometimes, you just can’t give more of yourself to your job. You’re depleted.”
Tewfik and colleagues conducted three different studies to better understand engagement variability among employees. Overall, they found engagement differs significantly among individuals, and increased variability can negatively affect job performance, even if average engagement stays the same. This likely happens because inconsistency makes it more difficult to develop efficiencies that improve performance, the researchers concluded.
Instead of demanding complete commitment and devotion that can lead to exhaustion and burnout, Tewfik said, it may be more effective for leaders and managers to encourage consistency.
“Consistent engagement offers a parallel, potentially healthier avenue,” she said. “If you can only give half of yourself to work, giving that half consistently is better for performance than fully investing yourself on some days and not at all on others.”
Although more than half of employers believe their employees are highly engaged, those perceptions often don’t match with reality, according to a recent Gallagher report. In-depth employee engagement surveys and clear internal communication can help bridge that gap, the report noted.
Employee engagement continued to trend downward this year, building on declines seen since 2021, according to recent Gallup research. Setting job expectations, managing employee energy and having regular meaningful conversations about goals and accomplishments can help with engagement, Gallup researchers found.
Focusing on an employee’s individual strengths and career path can boost engagement as well. Workers feel engaged and more closely connected to their jobs when they can take part in upskilling opportunities, employee resource groups or community groups related to their work.