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The difference between engagement and motivation matters. Here’s why

Before we can discern motivation versus engagement, we need to be sure we understand either term.

6 min read



Susan Fowler

During my presentations on the science of motivation, I am almost always asked to explain the difference between motivation and engagement. It’s a fair question. I challenge you to read five business blogs without running across tons of data on the value of an engaged workforce — and the dismal engagement scores of employees worldwide. However, if you ask most executives a critical question, they rarely have an adequate answer: “How do people become engaged or disengaged in the first place?”

Executives are spending millions of dollars to improve engagement without understanding how an individual becomes engaged or disengaged.

In 2007, Dr. Drea Zigarmi and his team of researchers embarked on a mission: Discover the root cause of engagement. Twelve years later, their award-winning research suggests a credible psychological theory about how engagement is formed. Their journey of unraveling the mystery of engagement intersected with my journey of applying motivation science.

Empirical proof for a 4th level of engagement

Zigarmi’s team presents empirical evidence for a fourth form of engagement on the continuum of disengagement, disengagement, and engagement: employee work passion. Referred to as EWP, employee work passion is a persistent, emotionally positive, meaning-based state of well-being stemming from reoccurring cognitive and emotional appraisals of various job and organizational situations that result in consistent, constructive, work intentions and behaviors.

EWP is characterized by five positive intentions:

  1. Performs above standard expectations
  2. Uses discretionary effort on behalf of the organization
  3. Endorses the organization and its leadership to others outside the organization
  4. Uses altruistic citizenship behaviors toward all stake- holders
  5. Stays with the organization

Organizational and job factors improve EWP scores

Researchers found that when 12 factors in the organization are operational, Individuals are more likely to demonstrate the five positive intentions of EWP.

Good to know. You can improve EWP scores by focusing on organizational and job factors such as job designs; workload balance; distributive and procedural justice; and strategies for career and job growth.

The problem? Changing organizations can be like turning the Queen Mary — systemic improvements take time, effort and big budgets. And, you need to improve engagement now.

This realization led me to ponder: What if we taught people to manage their own internal process that lead to EWP? What if we taught leaders how to facilitate that internal process?

This is where motivation science intervened.

Susan Fowler

If EWP is the question, motivation is the answer

How do you foster EWP? Through daily doses of optimal motivation.

The type of motivation you experience everyday matters. Motivation is the energy to act — it is at the heart of everything you do and don’t do. But not all motivation is created equal. Some motivation is high-quality and optimal. Some motivation is low-quality and suboptimal. Like when you eat a handful of almonds and generate high-quality energy that sustains you for hours versus downing a candy bar that shoots your blood sugar to the moon before you crash.

  • Optimal motivation fuels engagement and EWP. Optimal motivation is equivalent to eating the handful of almonds — it’s the positive energy, vitality and sense of well-being required to pursue, achieve, and sustain meaningful goals while thriving. You create optimal motivation through aligning with values, connecting to purpose, and the pure joy of doing something without the need for an external reward. Abundant research proves that optimal motivation leads to higher creativity, innovation, sustained high performance, and health and well-being.
  • Suboptimal motivation fuels disengagement and active disengagement. Suboptimal motivation is the equivalent to junk-food motivation — you may experience a burst of momentary energy, but suboptimal motivation doesn’t generate the type of psychic energy required to thrive or successfully pursue your goals over time. You create suboptimal motivation when you are motivated by rewards, money, power, status, image, fear and pressure. Suboptimal motivation undermines your results, both in the short- and long-term.

The connection between motivation and EWP is an evolutionary concept. Motivation is the psychic energy that fuels engagement. Optimal motivation fuels engagement and EWP. Suboptimal motivation fuels disengagement and active disengagement.

Bridging the gap between motivation and EWP

If EWP, or at least an engaged workforce, is your organization’s strategic outcome, then the best tactic is to ensure that people experience optimal motivation every day. Three ways to begin:

  1. Realize that if engagement and EWP are the ends; motivation is the means. Instead of perpetuating outdated theories such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Skinner’s operant conditioning, and traditional top-down and power-based management schemes, get up to speed on the new and compelling science of motivation.
  2. Rethink leadership competencies based on good motivation science. For example, help leaders nurture choice, connection and competence — the three psychological needs required for people to achieve their goals and thrive. Instead of driving for results, focus on ways to encourage choice. Instead of disregarding feelings, focus on deepening connection. Instead of emphasizing outcome goals, focus on learning goals that lead to competence.
  3. Recognize that motivation is a skill. People can learn to identify and shift their current motivational outlook to experience optimal motivation anytime and anyplace by creating choice, connection, and competence. Practicing the skill of motivation may be the quickest and surest path to EWP.

Of course, organizations need to continually improve the factors that encourage work passion, but what if we learn to manage own internal process? What if leaders learn how to create more optimally motivating workplaces? Then when an organization isn’t perfect — and we have yet to find one that is — you and those you lead can still experience EWP. That idea alone feels optimally motivating!


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: Motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Susan teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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