To the employee engagement zealots the phrase “wrong type of engagement” is an anathema.

But it certainly exists.

I’ve long been warning of the dangers of what I call “car crash” engagement (ref Brand Engagement 2007): the type that brings out the rubberneckers and clogs up rather than liberates the metaphorical corporate communication highways.

Employee engagement is a means to an end and not an end in itself as often implied. Take employee brand engagement for instance. It’s simply a term to describe the process of clarifying and forging a relationship between employees and the brand they represent in a way that ensures they are able to deliver on the promise the brand makes to the market.  It isn’t an obligation to entertain through corporate drama and expensively staged events nor is it achieved by performance management alone or by ramming benefits statements down the gaping maw of the collective needy. Engagement is achieved through involvement and by appealing to both logic and emotion. But above all it should be pragmatic in ambition as employee engagement initiatives for the sake of it are potentially damaging unless they enhance the ability of the business to deliver on its mission, vision and core goals

The latest CIPD research backs up this view. It rightly differentiates between transactional and emotional engagement and suggests that employees who are just transactionally engaged only connect with the task or job role at hand. They may well respond positively in engagement surveys however, thereby giving a false positive. Certainly in the short-term, they can display behaviours associated with commitment. But they are less likely to perform well and will quickly leave for a better job if offered a better financial deal, gathering intellectual property at the expense of the organisations they join as they go. That may suit some and may help to explain the growth in the interim market, but it has worrying implications for brand sustainability in the medium term and beyond.

In contrast, staff who are emotionally engaged believe in the organisation’s mission and values and feel a connection with their own. They are more likely to perform well, have higher levels of wellbeing and remain loyal. Great news all round provided they in turn, are encouraged to keep their “eye on the ball”.

Not surprisingly the research found that high levels of transactional engagement were potentially damaging for both individuals and their organisation because such employees report higher levels of stress and more difficulty in achieving a work-life balance than emotionally engaged employees. Transactionally engaged employees are also more likely to behave in ways that could damage the business, for example acting out of self-interest rather than in the interests of the organisation or making decisions that seem fine in the short-term but come back to "bite" long after they have left.

This potentially damaging type of engagement is arguably more prevalent during times of economic hardship when employees have shuffled down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and become more obsessed with the need to earn a living and meet minimal workplace expectations rather than nurture more developmental or higher order needs and values in themselves and their colleagues.

As Claire Churchard states in her PM article, 23 May ”Emotional engagement is prompted by elements that go beyond the job role itself, including colleagues, line managers, the organisation and clients. It is driven by an employee’s desire to do more than is expected for which they gain a more fulfilling psychological contract.”

Angela Baron, research adviser at the CIPD, said: “While we definitely encourage organisations to measure engagement, it’s not enough to focus on increasing scores without considering what type and locus of engagement is being measured. What people are engaged with, and the nature and driving force behind their engagement, also need taking into consideration – otherwise organisations risk misunderstanding the actual extent and nature of engagement.” In short, it’s entirely possible to be engaged in the wrong way leading to counter-productive outcomes for both the business and the individuals. Surveys aren’t enough, they’re just the starting point, as we’ve always said, leaders need to understand the underlying factors and that requires involvement through timely and frequent face to face consultation.

Baron added that HR and line managers have a key role in clearly defining engagement criteria and interpreting engagement surveys and scores because they have the insight to identify the different interactions at play in the workplace.  Any support for the pivotal role that first line managers have to play at the engagement front line is very much on message as far as we’re concerned.