Engaged employees are productive employees, but even the most committed workers can’t be 100% physically, emotionally, and mentally invested in their jobs 100% of the time.
New research from MIT Sloan assistant professor explores the phenomenon of “engagement variability,” its impact on job performance, and its connection to a worker’s level of emotional stability.
“The reality is, many of us ebb and flow in how engaged we are at work, no matter an organization’s work engagement efforts. We are not all consistently engaged at work,” Tewfik said. Given this fact, it’s important for managers to understand the impact of inconsistent engagement on employee performance.
In her recent paper, Tewfik and her co-researchers found that higher levels of variability in employee engagement negatively affect job performance. That is, inconsistently engaging at work hurts how well an employee does their job.
However, the researchers further found that lower levels of emotional stability (i.e., higher levels of neuroticism) in employees may weaken these negative effects. That’s because employees more prone to overthinking, being overly anxious, or having mood swings (all characteristics of neurotic behavior) also tend to be more accustomed to redirecting their attention or concentration from one thing in their environment to another.
“Imagine the classic neurotic behavior of bouncing from one intrusive thought to another,” Tewfik said. “People who are neurotic can run through a zillion different thoughts in quick succession; they’re naturally used to this kind of jumping. If you’re also someone who is pushing and pulling away from work — inconsistently engaging — this classic neurotic behavior can make this inconsistent engagement seem a bit more instinctual, thereby lessening the hit on performance.”
Here’s a closer look at the research, and takeaways for managers to encourage an engaged, productive workforce.
A spotlight on engagement variability
“Engagement variability” describes the consistent, or inconsistent, allocation of resources into a role over time. These resources include things that someone can invest in an activity — in this case, their job — such as attention, enthusiasm, and physical energy.
The researchers hypothesized that although inconsistently engaging at work would be bad for job performance, not all employees would perform worse when they inconsistently engaged. For people with lower emotional stability (i.e., higher neuroticism), inconsistent engagement would seem more instinctual. People with lower emotional stability are more accustomed to shifting resources in the way that engagement variability demands.
To test this idea, Tewfik and her co-researchers conducted three studies:
- Study 1 — Weekly surveys were sent to 160 ROTC cadets. Using a 7-point scale (where 1 indicated “strongly disagree” and 7 “strongly agree”), the cadets were asked each week, for nine weeks, about whether they had paid attention and concentrated, exerted physical effort, and expressed excitement and enthusiasm for their cadet training. At the end of the survey period, ROTC leaders submitted performance ratings for the cadets, and the researchers compared the pattern of cadets’ self-reported engagement across the weeks with their leaders’ performance ratings (i.e., their inconsistency across weeks).
- Study 2 — Six hundred full-time U.S. employees across a variety of industries were asked to participate in an experiment in which they completed a timed online task. During the task, to encourage some participants to experience high emotional stability and others low emotional stability, the researchers played one of two songs to participants: an instrumental version of Katy Perry’s pop song “Roar,” or the classical piece “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.” Additionally, to push some participants to practice high engagement variability and others low engagement variability, participants were given one of two directive messages: “Varying one’s pace throughout the task can improve performance” or “Working at a consistent pace can improve performance.”
- Study 3 — For two weeks, 152 employees across a variety of industries were surveyed on work engagement, flow, and self-reported performance. The surveys were conducted Monday through Friday, twice a day. The respondents used a 5-point scale (where 1 indicated “strongly disagree” and 5 “strongly agree”). Additionally, the employees’ supervisors were sent surveys at the end of each day to measure employee performance.
Across the three studies, the researchers found that employees who were consistently engaged over time had the best performance — that is, they had low engagement variability. However, when employees were inconsistently engaged, “being lower in emotional stability [i.e., more neurotic] seemed to weaken the negative effect of engagement variability on performance,” the researchers write.
In either case, managers should focus not just on ways to increase their employees’ investment in their jobs but also work on ways to address inevitable engagement variability.
Tewfik acknowledged that identifying the emotional stability of employees can be challenging for managers, intrusive for employees, and possibly illegal or against company policies. What’s easier to observe is worker engagement and performance.
“We can all probably think of colleagues who sometimes seem to be investing quite a bit of themselves into a role while at other times seem to be checked out,” Tewfik said.
Current recommendations to improve employee engagement center around trying to get employees to concentrate harder, put in more effort toward their jobs, or be more enthusiastic at work. This has often taken the form of in-office perks, such as the onsite gyms and dining halls offered at many big tech companies, to get people to enjoy being at work more, Tewfik said.
But increasing those resources might not always be financially possible or a healthy option for workers; sometimes employees just can’t give any more of themselves. The researchers suggest that managers consider ways to work with the personal resources employees already have, such as what they are willing and able to invest in their jobs. Educating employees about how they can perform better at work if they consistently apply themselves is one potential way to do this, Tewfik said.
Importantly, variability isn’t about “more” but, rather, consistency.
“If you can only give half of yourself to work, giving that half consistently is better for performance compared to fully investing yourself on some days and not at all on other days,” Tewfik said. “This paper introduces the idea that, given the same level of engagement on average, consistent engagement is going to yield better job performance than inconsistent engagement.”