Does high engagement equate to high performance? The conventional orthodoxy says yes. But new research from consulting firm, Leadership IQ, reviewed on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, has set the cat among the pigeons by saying no: in 42% of cases high performers are less engaged than low performers. As might be expected, this has prompted a vigorous debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Gallup, has responded with the moral indignation of a seventeenth century inquisitor out to put a Galileo in his place, and there have been lengthy exchanges on the HBR blog site and the Engage for Success LinkedIn guru site). Even the Financial Times has had its say.

So what are we to make of it? Is it a death blow to the idea of engagement as a driver of business performance, or is there anything we can take from it? In my view it raises three important issues:

First, it reminds us of the important link between performance management and engagement. It’s not difficult to understand that poorly performing co-workers can undermine the engagement of high performers, and our own research shows that many employees (not just high performers) believe that managers don’t deal effectively with poor performance. The challenge for many companies is to set clear expectations, hold people accountable and, as Jack Welch has said a million times, differentiate on that basis. That won’t necessarily stop high fliers from leaving but it may well raise their level of engagement while they stay.

Second, it highlights the need for effective communication. Just as companies need to listen to their customers, so too, they need to listen to their own people. They need to understand how poor performance undermines engagement, they need to get into the hearts and minds of their top performers and, above all, they need to develop the people management abilities of their line managers.

Last but not least, it raises the broader question about the links between engagement and performance. In our company we’ve long thought it useful to split engagement into two key components. The first focuses on the extent to which people are positive about their job, and feel supported and recognised for their efforts; the second focus on the extent to which they want to stay and develop a career with their company, feel motivated to act as advocates for the company, and feel the company has a distinctive and positive culture. In our experience many companies score far better on the job dimension than company side, and it varies from sector to sector, and from discipline to discipline. People with clearly defined and highly developed skill sets tend to have a value and a marketability not shared by others and this often impacts their sense of commitment to their employer. We have seen it amongst finance and IT people and it is more pronounced amongst healthcare professionals.  In all cases the commitment to the calling is typically more pronounced than the commitment to a particular employer.

This possibly explains the apparent conundrum in the Leadership IQ research. High performers might not have a great deal of commitment to their company, but often they can be very positive about their jobs (notwithstanding the influence of poor performers). In that sense there is no conundrum provided we see engagement as something that’s multi rather than mono-dimensional.

More blogs on engagement-related issues from Digital Opinion’s Mark Allison