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Difference Between Employee Engagement And Job Satisfaction

By Kathleen Joy C Hingan

Throughout the years, I assumed that employee engagement is simply ensuring that employees are paid enough to stay happy and to not look for other jobs. This is a rather simplistic thought that does not actually hold true in reality. Unfortunately, a lot of companies still have this traditional way of thinking that making employees happy is enough to guarantee their engagement.

That said, what is the difference between job satisfaction and employee engagement? The one thing that sets job satisfaction and employee engagement apart is motivation. Job satisfaction is achieved when the employee is motivated by external factors such as salary or benefits. Employee engagement only occurs when they start to have deeper sources of motivation, such as contributing to the shared company vision or becoming the best in their field.

Distinguishing between these two related concepts can be hard. However, by digging deeper into what motivates your employees, it becomes easier to see whether they are engaged or simply satisfied by their work.

External and Internal Motivation

Understanding what exactly motivates your employees is key to determining whether you are engaging them enough. Your employees can be driven to work for various reasons, but they can all be classified as either external or internal motivation.

External Motivation

Many office workers readily admit that material resources motivate them. Many of them sought out career paths that are known to pay handsomely, and they considered salary as one of their main criteria for screening which jobs to apply to. Others wanted to have jobs that came with lots of benefits, such as free housing or generous vacation leaves.

To clarify, there is nothing wrong with using external motivation. Offering a large enough salary, complete with generous benefits and bonuses, will indeed make most employees very satisfied. Conversely, it will be hard to gain and retain good employees if you cannot at least match the offers of other companies. External motivation is much easier to achieve than internal motivation, especially for well-established companies with abundant resources.

The problem with internal motivation occurs when companies stop at this point. Many of these companies fall into the trap of thinking that money and happiness is the only thing that employees care about. Optimizing the satisfaction of your employees without tapping into their deeper desires will lead to a workforce that does the bare minimum but won’t work beyond what is required. They will get the job done, and nothing more.

Internal Motivation  

True engagement occurs when employees are driven by more intrinsic factors. For example, many people derive a sense of achievement from contributing to a shared vision. They can with their company vision and find that it runs parallel to their own vision in life. They are then motivated to help turn it into reality.

Some people may have a desire to climb the corporate ladder as they get to hold higher leadership positions. They get satisfaction from leading teams in the pursuit of a common goal, or perhaps they want to increase their influence and feel like they are a significant part of the company workforce. Others are motivated by competition. They love the thrill of pushing themselves to the limit, and they wish to prove to themselves that they are one of the best.

Unlike external motivation, offering money or resources won’t be of much help. Inspiring people to work for reasons such as these are harder to cultivate in your employees as it requires more active participation on your part, but it is worth it in the end. Engaged employees will work harder and continually challenge themselves to do better in pursuit of their goals. In contrast, those that are merely satisfied will be content with doing the bare minimum. Why would they exert more effort when they already have what they want, mainly a large salary?

Determining If Your Employees are Satisfied and Engaged

The most straightforward way to determine the levels of job satisfaction and employee engagement is to ask your employees. Set some time to talk to them, and ask them to answer as sincerely as possible. Assure them that you will not take their answers against them, since being solely motivated by external factors isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More importantly, it is the responsibility of the bosses and leaders of the company to ensure that all members are satisfied and engaged.

Why did your employees apply to your company?

Explore their different motives for applying for the company. Perhaps they simply like the pay and benefits, or maybe they saw the company as a good environment to grow a career. Determine also whether their motivations changed as they started to work for the company.

What pushes your employees to do their work?

Is it fear of reprimand from their bosses? Is it the opportunity to earn more money and get promoted? When going into this particular line of questioning, always follow up with more why questions. This lets you dig deeper into the core of their motivation.

Do your employees relate to the corporate vision?

Employees who feel that they are aligned with the vision of the company they work for will be more motivated to do their best and to exceed base requirements. They will be more likely to see the relevance of what they do and to attribute meaning to their work.

Do your employees feel a higher sense of purpose when working?

Some of the best businessmen attributed their success to purpose. Having a strong purpose allows you to persevere towards your goal, even if obstacles keep blocking your path.

Now, aside from asking your employees these questions, also take some time to reflect on these questions yourself.

Do you cover the basics of job satisfaction? Do you offer generous benefits, a good salary, and a nice place to work in?

Note that it is easier to promote employee engagement if they are already satisfied in the first place. It is possible, but difficult, to become engaged if your basic needs aren’t even being satisfied

Do you assign roles and give tasks that tap into the skills of your employees?

When employees are given tasks that are too easy or too difficult for them, it becomes harder for them to engage in their work.

Do you foster a collaborative environment where everyone can feel a collective sense of purpose?

An overly competitive, unsupportive, and hostile environment is the quickest way for workers to lose both satisfaction and engagement.

Promoting Employee Engagement

As mentioned before, it is significantly harder to make people tap into their internal motivations. However, it is a necessary task for any business to run more efficiently and to thrive. Fortunately, there is a framework that makes it easier to keep in mind the core practices that lead to employee management. Just remember the acronym MAGIC, which stands for meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection.  

  • Meaning

Employees can only become engaged with their work when they feel a sense of purpose in accomplishing tasks. As anyone who was tasked with menial labor such as preparing coffee during their internships, it becomes harder to appreciate your work if you cannot see its relevance.

  • Autonomy

When employees are allowed to forge their own paths, they can attribute any results they gain from the actions they took, empowering them to perform at their best. Companies can implement this by emphasizing employee input during brainstorming sessions or by being more open to their suggestions. Some companies allow employees to engage in their own pet projects, sometimes even providing all the necessary resources.

  • Growth

When employees can’t see any potential for development, they will eventually stagnate. Boredom will set in, killing their motivation. While it might be tempting to give people tasks that they become accustomed to, always try to find ways to nudge them out of their comfort zones.

  • Impact

Most people desire to exert their influence on the world, and many wish to be a driving force for good. By making them feel their impact on the organization, they are further encouraged to do more.  

  • Connection

Finally, if your employees can see themselves fully as a part of the corporate culture, they will be more inspired to be more productive for the sake of their friends and colleagues. If their goals align with those of the company, then they will strive to work harder.

Related Questions  

Is there a scientific basis for job satisfaction? 

Frederick Herzberg, an American psychologist, developed Motivation-Hygiene Theory.   Motivation-Hygiene Theory found that there are different factors causing job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction.  The top 6 factors for job satisfaction are:

  1. Achievement
  2. Recognition
  3. Work itself
  4. Responsibility
  5. Advancement
  6. Growth

The top 6 factors for job dissatisfaction are:

  1. Company Policy
  2. Supervision
  3. Relationship with boss
  4. Work conditions
  5. Salary
  6. Relationship with peers

Is there evidence that employees focus more on job satisfaction rather than on employee engagement? 

A report from the 2016 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement study concluded that 88% of employees in the US are at least somewhat satisfied. However, when asked to rate their engagement on a scale of 1 to 5, the average score was only 3.8.


Written by Kathleen Joy C H., 7 years of experience as a writer

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