The hidden risk of employee engagement

Engaged employees benefit their organizations in numerous ways – they’re more productive, loyal, and profitable to name but a few. You can see why organizations are keen to ramp up the engagement levels of their employees. But is there a cost?

There’s a sweet spot between being checked out and being burned out, where we are at our best. Where we are challenged, but not overwhelmed. Learning, but not out of our element. Out of our comfort zone, but in reach of a new one. The problem is that sweet spot’s a bit like the golden snitch. It’s small, and it’s moving target.

Checked out employees are bored, disconnected, and going through the motions. That sounds like the opposite of an engaged employee, right? But imagine the engaged employee in that state perpetually – always going above and beyond, giving 500%, at the peak of their performance. It’s not sustainable, and it will lead to burnout – which happens to look a lot like being checked out. Trying to keep people maximally engaged without periods of coasting and rejuvenation will paradoxically reduce engagement.

We all have a certain craving for sameness. There is safety in sameness, but there is also the threat of stagnation. At the same time, we are programmed for growth and change. We seek opportunity, but with it comes a certain degree of risk. As individuals and managers we need to be insightful about when more challenge, more growth opportunity, more stretching is necessary; or when it’s time to rest and recharge. This ebb and flow will vary according to personality – some people need sameness more than others to feel secure and will burnout more quickly; some people crave change and will check out with too much sameness – but also as a function of time in each state.

We also need to be aware that it’s the people who are most likely to be high-performing and highly engaged who are most at risk for burnout: People who have a high need for achievement, have high expectations for themselves, and who also crave growth and challenge. They want to take on new responsibilities, and may have a hard time knowing when to say “no.” Further, these days, our “always on” work environments threaten to contribute to a crisis of burnout. Savvy leaders need to recognize that there’s a risk inherent in the high levels of effort and investment associated with engagement. Coaching around growth and development needs to keep this in mind, especially with employees who tend to push themselves. Cultures and climates that encourage and respect employees’ boundaries will be more likely to sustain strong engagement levels across time.


“In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel “burnout” setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.” –Dalai Lama