From the Literature: A Look at Employee Engagement
George Carlin once said, “Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough not to quit.” It’s a humorous line, but I wonder how many managers and leaders would wince a bit when they hear it. If they are truly concerned about workplace performance, they should. Granted, the system described by Carlin is stable and probably productive enough (just enough, in fact). But managers and leaders with an interest in performance would certainly want more.
One way to get more is through employee engagement. Employee engagement is a relatively recent concept that is garnering a lot of interest in the performance improvement community. The promises of employee engagement are many: higher productivity, more job satisfaction, and increased profits, to name but a few. But is there really something to this idea of employee engagement, or is it the latest fad, with little to no substance behind it? In this column, I’ll take a quick look at the academic literature on employee engagement and summarize what we know (or, to put it in a more academic way, what we have evidence for).
The concept of employee engagement began with William Kahn (1990). As often happens when a new concept is formulated, Kahn himself did not use the term employee engagement in his 1990 article. He wrote of “personal engagement” and “personal disengagement.” The former he defined as “the harnessing of organization members’ selves to their work roles” (p. 694); the latter, as “the uncoupling of selves from work roles” (p. 694). Clearly, Kahn was talking about a form of workplace identity. To the extent that people identify with the work that they do, they will be engaged. To the extent that they don’t, they will disengage. Kahn further defined three psychological conditions associated with engagement: meaningfulness, or the extent to which people feel that what they’re doing is worthwhile and valuable; safety, or the extent to which people feel comfortable being who they are at work; and availability, or the extent to which physical and psychological resources are accessible while engaging in work. Further work has largely substantiated Kahn’s original formulation, though terminology sometimes differs and alternative models do exist.
But does employee engagement really result in any concrete benefits? It is true that employee engagement has been studied more as a theoretical construct than a tactical intervention. More researchers have looked at the antecedents of employee engagement than the consequences. Still, there does seem to be good evidence that robust employee engagement results in several positive outcomes. Chang-Wook Jeung (2011) reported several studies that collectively found a long list of such benefits, including worker satisfaction, customer satisfaction, customer loyalty, productivity, and profitability.
So how do you get employee engagement? The gold standard for demonstrating causality is the experimental design. Sadly, there do not appear to be any experimental designs testing employee engagement reported in the research literature. That is to say (to my knowledge), no one has measured employee engagement, done an intervention, and measured again and found it to be higher. Still, the reported literature is suggestive. Solomon Markos and M. Sandhya Sridevi (2010) offered 10 employee engagement strategies. These include advice such as, “Start it on day one” (of a new hire’s career), “Give satisfactory opportunities for development and advancement,” and “Ensure that employees have everything they need to do their jobs” (sic). Kahn’s original formulation around workplace identity is itself a good guide. It suggests that Carl Binder’s (1998) Selection and Assignment box is relevant here, as you need to pick the people who enjoy what you’ll be asking them to do, and make sure they understand and are rewarded for the value they add to the organization by doing it.
Employee engagement is no panacea, but the academic literature does suggest that it is a strong concept with positive real-world consequences. Managers and leaders interested in improving performance would be well-served by taking an interest in employee engagement and doing what they can to enhance it in their organizations; and, all joking aside, that will leave a smile on everyone’s face.
Binder, C. (1998). The Six Boxes™: A descendent of Gilbert’s Behavioral Engineering Model. Performance Improvement, 37(6), 48-52.
Jeung, C.W. (2011). The concept of employee engagement: a comprehensive review from a positive organizational behavior perspective. Performance improvement quarterly, 24(2), 49-69.
Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), 692-724.
Markos, S., & Sridevi, M. S. (2010). Employee Engagement: The Key to Improving Performance. International Journal of Business & Management, 5(12), 89-96.