On Jan. 25, 2023, Gallup Poll released the results of its annual Q12 survey, which measures and tracks employee engagement from 50 countries. The 2022 Q12 survey results depict a grim reality for US employers. The survey found that employee engagement in the US has decreased significantly since 2020, marking the first annual decline in a decade. This decrease in engagement was particularly notable among young, female, and remote-ready on-site employees (Harter, 2023).
Employee engagement has been a buzzword in organizational management for the past 30 years. In recent years, organizational and internal communication scholars have also placed a significant emphasis on the importance of employee engagement, linking effective leadership, symmetrical employee communication, and positive employee-organization relationship qualities with employee engagement.
Organizational psychology scholars generally agree that employee engagement means an activated, passionate, and motivated psychological state of employee that drives discretionary effort, that is, willingness to give extra effort. Engaged employees demonstrate a high level of participation in work-related activities that are typically outside their formal job responsibilities. They are employees who volunteer for a committee, stay after hours to complete unfinished tasks, show up at organization-sponsored events outside of work hours, and enjoy spending time with colleagues outside work.
According to Gallup, the most significant decline in employee engagement since its pre-pandemic record high in 2019 to 2022 was observed in the areas of clarity of work expectations, connection to the organization’s mission or purpose, opportunities for learning and growth, opportunities to utilize one’s strengths, and feeling valued and supported at work.
Gallup’s employee engagement questions, aka Q12, measure employee responses on topics ranging from a clear understanding of role expectations at work, organizational and interpersonal support for work, professional growth, autonomy, and value fulfillment.
While Gallup Q12 is called the employee engagement scale, it does not measure employee engagement. Instead, it is a scale that measures workplace environment and leadership qualities that might predict employee engagement (See the full Q12 scale here). So, the 2022 Gallup Q12 survey findings indicate that US employers fail to drive employee engagement, particularly in the abovementioned areas.
In 2022, US media outlets reported on a phenomenon called quiet quitting, which gained widespread attention after trending on social media. Quiet quitting describes an employee attitude that rejects “the idea that work should be at the central focus of their life…. the expectations of giving their all or putting in extra hours (Zenger & Folkman, 2022, para 1). By definition, quiet quitting is the opposite of employee engagement, as it describes the refusal to exert discretionary efforts beyond what is outlined in the job description.
Quiet quitting is nothing new, as the media have made it out to be. In their Harvard Business Review article, Zenger and Folkman (2022) called quiet quitting a new name for an old behavior.
While organizations lament the emergence of quiet quitting behaviors in their workforce, scholars point out that quitting is often a response to an unsupportive work environment and unsustainable expectations. For example, using data from their 360-degree leadership assessments gathered since 2020 on 2,801 managers, Zenger and Folkman (2022) analyzed the drivers of quiet quitting behaviors among employees, focusing on two factors: the manager’s ability to balance achieving results with concern for others’ needs, and work environment. They found that ineffective managers were three or four times more likely to have quiet quitters in their teams.
The reality of the emerging workforce is that the majority of Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z employees view quiet quitting as drawing healthy work-life boundaries. In other words, the so-called “quiet quitting” is here to stay. So, what can organizations do to increase employee engagement? Can employee engagement be sustainable? If quiet quitting is a response to an unsupportive workplace and unrealistic expectations for employees to be always ON at work, perhaps the answers to these questions are somewhere from conducting work environment audits, listening to employees, and setting the right role expectations appropriate for the compensation, respecting employees’ need to disconnect from work to recharge, and encouraging a healthy work-life balance.
In conclusion, to sustain employee engagement, organizations must adapt to the changing attitudes of the emerging workforce, particularly among Gen Z and Millennial employees. This includes reevaluating traditional engagement strategies, such as recognitions and rewards, and redefining engagement in the context of organizational characteristics.
Harter, J. (2023, January 25). U.S. employee engagement needs a rebound in 2023. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/468233/employee-engagement-needs-rebound-2023.aspx?utm_source=google&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syndication
Zenger, J. & Folkman, J. (2022, August 31). Quiet quitting is about bad bosses, not bad employees. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/08/quiet-quitting-is-about-bad-bosses-not-bad-employees
Minjeong Kang, Ph.D. (Mass Communication, Syracuse University) is an associate professor in The Media School at Indiana University, where she teaches public relations and internal communication management courses. Kang’s primary research has been centered on understanding engagement in various organizational stakeholder contexts such as volunteers, employees, consumers, etc. Kang’s research has received several national and international recognitions such as Emerald Publishing’s Literati Award of Excellence for Highly Commended for her 2017 publication in Journal of Communication Management, Gallup Korea’s Outstanding Research Award for her 2019 publication in Journal of Public Relations Research, and 2009 Ketchum Excellence in Public Relations Research Award by Institute of Public Relation for her research proposal on blog credibility.