The myth of engagement

Written by
Dr Amy Armstrong
Ashridge Executive Education

13 Dec 2018

13 Dec 2018 • by Dr Amy Armstrong

In Google Scholar, the term ‘employee engagement’ yields over 850,000 results and over 500 academic articles have been written on the topic in the past three years alone. However, we’re still not getting it right. Despite widespread recognition that engaged employees are good for business, backed by strong evidence that high engagement means better company performance, engagement levels remain anaemic.

Worldwide, a paltry 13% of people across 142 countries are engaged in their work, with actively disengaged workers being twice as prevalent as engaged workers. The UK has one the highest proportions of actively disengaged workers and it is these employees who are most vocal about their unhappiness and are who are the biggest drain on a manager’s time, creating a deleterious effect on those around them. So, if we are able to understand why engagement levels in this country are so low, and uncover we might do to address poor engagement, we have the potential to transform UK productivity.

This was the starting point for a recent Ashridge-Hult study, where we sought to understand what gets in the way of teams being able to perform at their best. In what we believe to be the largest UK study of barriers to team engagement to date, we examined engagement across 28 teams spanning seven industry sectors. When comparing teams, we found that there are ‘shades of grey’ when it comes to team engagement, opposed to teams simply being either engaged or disengaged.

It is only when the lid was lifted and these teams were examined in detail that we saw a range of factors at play, which meant that only a quarter of teams were actually engaged.

Zones of engagement

In our study, we found that two overarching factors affect team engagement. These are the climate (or emotional atmosphere) in the team, and team behaviours – the extent to which the team is reactive or proactive when it comes to their work. As a result of team climate and team behaviours, four ‘zones’ of engagement emerged (Engaged, Disengaged, Contented or Pseudo-Engaged). Despite half of the teams being initially selected by their organisations as being engaged (due, in part, to consistently high engagement scores), we found that 14% of them were in fact ‘contented’ – that is to say in a state of complacency, and 29% of them were ‘pseudo-engaged’. It is these two zones that organisations should pay particular attention to, since they may currently be hidden from company view.

If engagement is a proactive state in which teams ‘go the extra mile’ and choose to bring the best of themselves to their work, in ‘contented’ teams, there is a strong sense of complacency. Here, team members do the minimum work required, operate within their capabilities, and clock off at 5pm. Team members are simply focused on getting through their set workload and ticking off the ‘to do’ list. For many, work is a means to an end. Team members focus on current problems and fail to think about the future. They do not seek, stretch or challenge, and many of them have been in the team or organisation for a long time and are not interesting in pushing themselves or the team forward.

One of the disadvantages of teams populated by long-serving members is that the opportunity for an injection of fresh ideas or ways of working may be lost. In these ‘contented’ teams, newer members work alongside long-serving staff can feel a sense of unfairness in that their ideas are not being taken on board and that poor performance in long-serving staff is tolerated.

Despite not being engaged, however, it could be argued that these teams provide important stability within an organisation, since we know that satisfied employees are likely to stay in organisations for longer. However, if seen as a stable backbone to the business, these teams may be better suited to back office functions that favour routine and set ways of working.


The idea of pseudo-engagement emerged when studying teams who presented an illusion of engagement. In the eyes of their organisation and according to their engagement scores, these people appear highly engaged. However, when studied in detail, a range of team dysfunctions became apparent. With low levels of trust and cohesion, team members are ‘out for themselves’. In pseudo-engaged teams, team members play the system to serve their own needs and careers, for example by stretching workload to fill time, or putting a positive spin on the team’s engagement, which does not reflect reality.

Pseudo-engaged teams are merely a collection of individuals who happen to work together. Team leaders in turn are more interested serving their own careers and spending time ingratiating themselves to senior management rather than making themselves available for their own team. In these teams, individuals may be highly engaged in their own role, however there is little evidence of mutual support and ‘togetherness’ across the team. People do not go out of their way to help each other.

Pseudo-engaged teams were particularly prevalent in healthcare settings, where employees are targeted at an individual level rather than being rewarded for collective performance. Unless a more granular approach is taken on the ground, by working closely with these teams on a day-to-day basis, it might be that these teams are hidden from an organisation’s view given the pretence of engagement that is being promoted.

By lifting the lid on team engagement, our study has found that a climate of trust and psychological safety is paramount, whereby people feel safe to speak up and to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work. The extent to which we are supported, trusted and empowered by our manager and the support we receive from our colleagues are the strongest predictors of team engagement, with the implication being that team leaders should be encouraged to become more attuned to the impact of their skills and style on their team. 

Ashridge Executive Education