Java with Joe: Don’t let your organization settle for high employee job satisfaction and morale.

During my tenure as Chief Human Resources Officer at Cleveland Clinic, I held regular “Java with Joe” sessions with small groups of leaders at every level of the organization. These informal meetings usually began by my asking: “What’s keeping you up at night?” and invariably questions came back about the challenges of creating and manmugsaging an engaged work environment. These days, when I speak to other organizations about their employee engagement and leadership issues, the Q&A session is again one of my favorite activities. So I thought I’d bring back Java with Joe to answer questions about engagement that I’m often asked. If you’d like to join the conversation with a comment or a question of your own, something that’s keeping you up at night, please jump in.

OK…so here’s today’s question:

Employee satisfaction. Employee morale. Employee engagement. What’s the difference? Does it matter?

Let me start by saying that while these terms do overlap, there are differences among them.

Do those differences really matter? They do, if you’re trying to build an organization that delivers extraordinary results.

OK, so let’s take a closer look at these concepts, starting with job satisfaction, which seems to me the most basic of the three because it refers simply to how content employees are with their work environment, benefits etc. It answers the question “Are you comfortable?” The problem is that a high level of job satisfaction doesn’t necessarily mean that an organization is getting truly outstanding performance from its employees.

It’s definitely possible for an employee to be satisfied with his/her job but not be a particularly high performer. People can get comfortable in their performance zone. They feel safe there, and not particularly challenged. For some people, though—and in my experience, this includes your “high potentials” and many “millennials”—this safe, secure feeling isn’t enough. If these people don’t feel challenged, they will eventually get bored and leave. They’ll move to an organization where their leaders expect them to be better than average and work hard to help them get there. For these people—the people most likely to take your organization to new heights—job satisfaction is nice, but it’s not enough.

Employee morale goes a step beyond job satisfaction, implying a greater sense of purpose and a more direct connection to performance. It’s hard to imagine someone saying of their organization, “Our employees have really high morale, but they don’t perform especially well,” or vice versa. Morale, however, can change quickly when difficult times set in, if the foundations to sustain it are not in place.  I hate to compare efforts to raise morale to “pep rallies,” but that’s all too often what they resemble.

If you’re really trying to build a high performance organization, I think you need to go beyond thinking about employee morale. You need to be thinking about employee engagement. Why? Because employee engagement includes not only how comfortable your employees are and how they’re feeling in the short term, but also whether or not they feel a strong emotional and intellectual connection with their work and their organization. And here’s the really important thing: with highly engaged employees, that connection motivates them to put extra effort into what they do on the job.

That discretionary effort is what employee engagement is all about. It’s what takes you from ok performance, or even good performance, to great performance. It’s what sees you through the difficult times—and difficult times always come.

So let’s sum up. Job satisfaction and high morale are important, but they’re not enough—not in today’s hyper competitive business environment. These days we can’t afford to set the bar that low. We need to build that strong intellectual and emotional connection between our employees and our organization. We need them to feel that the organization’s mission is their own personal cause, to the point where they do the ordinary things exceptionally well, and sometimes even do things that go beyond the ordinary.

That’s the goal we should all be setting for the organizations we lead, because organizations that have high levels of engagement consistently outperform their competition. (The research is rich with evidence on this.) But the other reason is that it’s just so much more fun to come to work every day when you and the people around you feel connected to something bigger than yourselves, when you’re all pushing yourselves and one another to be better.

So don’t settle for just job satisfaction or good morale. Don’t sleep walk through your career as a leader and let your employees settle for OK performance. The people you serve are better than that and so are you.

All my best and thanks for tuning into this edition of Java with Joe. And please, add your thoughts and reactions to the conversation, and let me know what’s keeping you up at night.

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