Are your teams just playing the engagement game?

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Written by Dr Amy Armstrong on 18 January 2019 in Features

Are you engaged or are you just 'pseudo-engaged'? Dr Amy Armstrong wants to know.

Reading time: 3 minutes.

It is now widely recognised that highly engaged employees are good for business and there is robust evidence connecting levels of employee engagement with company performance. However, despite a general acceptance of this phenomenon across industry, it does not appear to have translated into widespread improvements in national productivity.

The UK continues to have some of the lowest levels of engagement in Europe, so we are failing somewhere to get it right. 

Many organisations may look to their engagement survey results as a way of understanding the state of play in their own organisations, however, recent research has found that surveys may not present the whole story when it comes to engagement.

When studying work teams across a range of organisations and sectors, a more complex and nuanced picture was revealed. This research suggests that there are ‘shades of grey’ when it comes to team engagement, which challenges traditional dualistic notions of teams being simply either engaged or disengaged.

Team members pretend to be motivated because that is what they believe their team leader wants to hear.

Lifting the lid on the 28 teams studied, the emotional atmosphere in the team, the way the team respond to their work and the quality of team leadership were the three most important enablers or disablers of team engagement.

Furthermore, of the teams that were initially selected by their organisations as being highly engaged (due to their consistently high engagement scores), it was found that 29% of them were in fact ‘pseudo-engaged’.

The idea of pseudo-engagement emerged when studying teams who presented an illusion of engagement, that is to say, in the eyes of their organisation and according to their engagement scores, they appear highly engaged, however, when studied in detail, a range of team dysfunctions became apparent.


In these teams, the engagement game is being played, whereby team members say the right things in order to get into their manager’s ‘good books’. Team members pretend to be motivated because that is what they believe their team leader wants to hear. In turn, team leaders are more interested in ingratiating themselves to senior management than being available for their own teams. 

With high levels of mistrust, there is a ‘Machiavellian’ feel to these teams. Pseudo-engaged teams are merely a collection of individuals who happen to work together with team members being ‘out for themselves’. Individuals are proactive but to serve their own agendas and careers.

There is little evidence of collegiality or support, and as such, pseudo-engaged teams are challenged by group tasks and struggle with team diversity. They also find it difficult to form natural relationships with each other, so their team leaders may end up creating ‘organised fun’ which is seen as artificial and inauthentic.

These teams may be tricky for organisations to spot given their pretence of engagement. That is, unless, a more granular approach is taken, which is often more qualitative than quantitative. It is important that team leaders ask, listen and act regularly, so that these teams are not missed by the corporate radar.

By setting both individual and team targets, explicitly rewarding teamwork and team output and developing a shared purpose, it is possible to turn these teams from pseudo to engaged. In these kinds of teams, it is only by stressing the importance of interdependence that individuals will be discouraged from trying to ‘look good’.

How many of these teams exist under the radar in your organisation? One thing is for sure, they may remain undetected if all you have to go by is your annual engagement survey or your quarterly ‘pulse check’.

It is only by getting close to these teams that their lid can be lifted, since with engagement metrics, as with these teams themselves, they may not present the whole picture when it comes to engagement.


About the author

Dr Amy Armstrong is Senior Faculty and Lead Researcher at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School



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