The Engagement Blind Spot

Recent research suggests there could be a problem with employees who are “too” engaged.

What could possibly be wrong with a highly motivated, top-performing, super-reliable, team-empowering, highly agile employee? Surprisingly, they could pose a risk to the organization’s future success.

Organization leaders have been so focused on increasing employee engagement that experts say they could be missing trouble at the other end of the spectrum: employees who are too engaged at work. Recent research suggests that these hyper-engaged employees can ultimately become difficult to manage, are less productive, and can hurt a company’s performance. “Overly motivated employees can be inclined to challenge everything, creating disruption and inefficiency,” says Mark Royal, a senior director with Korn Ferry. 

The issue, however, has less to do with overly ambitious employees running amok and more to do with leaders not being able to get the most out of motivated employees. “Being achievement oriented, highly engaged employees are also likely to be the most sensitive to any barriers to getting work done,” Royal says. He notes that levels of workplace frustration are highest among highly engaged employees, in part because they feel held back by their roles or work environments.

An office filled with engaged employees is the goal of any executive these days, of course. Worldwide, about one-third of workers aren’t engaged, according to Korn Ferry research, and other surveys place the disengagement figure far higher. Many organizations view the creation of a high-engagement workplace as key to attracting and retaining talent.

Royal says getting the best out of engaged employees means not only motivating them, but also creating environments that allow employees’ extra efforts to translate into performance and productivity.

For instance, giving employees autonomy is great—to a certain point. “The absence of boundaries is not empowering; it’s limiting,” says Royal. “Employees who don’t understand how far their authority reaches will be fearful of overstepping it.” Clarifying the scope of authority enables talent to make decisions without worrying about going too far.

Similarly, highly engaged employees give every task equal weight, meaning that they evaluate their performance based on whether everything got done. Royal says leaders can improve by helping highly engaged employees prioritize tasks and pull away from nonessential work. 

The key to keeping employees engaged is clarifying not only the responsibilities of individuals and their teams but also the accountabilities of other teams on which employees depend, says Royal.