Most accept that engagement provides a critical precursor to optimal productivity and performance in any organization. Today, most organizations not only monitor engagement, but also evaluate managers on the engagement of their workforce along with other performance-based outcomes. Yet, we all know that keeping employees engaged takes a considerable amount of time and effort on the part of managers and leaders. As leaders work through the practicality of ensuring high levels of engagement, a common concern arises related to how to balance engagement and discipline. Assuming that employees who possess higher levels of engagement do a better job completing their tasks, are less likely to make mistakes, and are more motivated to perform, what happens when the performance still falls short? Or, what happens to engagement when you need to discipline?
A 2013 study by Leadership IQ joined group performance and engagement data to assess the viability of the linkage. After examining the results for 207 companies, a startling result surfaced: in 42% of the companies, the most engaged employees produced the least. Similarly, in those same companies, the least engaged were providing the majority of the productivity. A closer examination revealed that the most common reason for disengagement among those performing well pertained to the absence of accountability in the form of communicating clear performance expectations, recognizing contribution, and addressing poor performance. Disengagement among high performers occurred from a lack of actual management, which created a dysfunctional environment. Those still performing simply ignored the dysfunction while those engaged, but not performing failed to understand their own shortcomings. It makes more sense when you think of those organizations where a small cadre of high performers complains that the rest of the employees do not even realize they are failing to perform.
So, how would these results assist us in answering our question of the interaction between engagement and discipline? In macro sense, discipline is key to ensuring higher levels of engagement if it is part of the overall effort to support accountability through communicating performance expectations and results. An organization that does not address performance shortcomings will erode overall engagement, especially among those performing. Although this makes sense at the macro level, when confronting an individual, the linkage works differently depending on the nature of the feedback. Except when with the most mature recipients and the best communicators, negative feedback creates distance between the employee and the supervisor or even the organization. This distance erodes engagement as the level of trust and affinity for the supervisor decreases.
Consequently, for engagement to remain at similar levels, other factors with greater weight in the calculus of engagement should be emphasized, concurrently. Research shows that two elements influence the level of engagement more than communication on performance: communication on strategy and direction as well as understanding of business goals for the team and organization. In the most simple sense, a supervisor might reinforce the importance of the person to the organization, reconnect the employee to the overall direction of the organization, and emphasize the critical nature of the associated tasks to reaching business objectives.