Employee Engagement? It’s Complicated.

I’m poking around in the literature on employee engagement. Having ingested a fair share of the progressive OD literature: Senge, Wheatley, Peters, Cummings & Worley—employee engagement seems like a particularly interesting niche to explore. For starters, it has a progressive, people-centered ring to it. It’s heartening to think that people’s positive experience at work has enough perceived value  to command millions of dollar in investment–as much as $720 million per year according to a frequently cited Bersin report.

At the same time, you don’t have to dig far to discover that despite the money pouring in, employee engagement remains elusive. Why? Well, let’s consider three factors to start: definition, return on investment and access .

Definition The concept of employee engagement emerged in the mid-1990s, 25-years on, the field has yet to settle on a  definition of what employee engagement represents. Is it a measure of job satisfaction? Commitment to the organization? Individual enthusiasm translated into discretionary effort? Or a pro-active psychological state, something like Csikszentmihalyi’s flow but different? Is employee engagement an antecedent, mediator or an outcome? The answer, is yes. Depending on which expert or consulting firm you employ.

Here are a few of the ways employee engagement has been conceptualized:

“…a heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for his/her job, organization, manager, or co‐workers that, in turn, influences him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.”
The Conference Board, 2006
“…a personal state of authentic involvement, contribution and ownership.”
The Philadelphia Human Resource Planning Society, 2002
“…discretionary effort or a form of in‐role or extra‐role effort or behavior.”
Macey & Schneider, 2008
“…the harnessing of organization membersʹ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances.”
Kahn, 1990
“…a person’s involvement satisfaction as well as enthusiasm for work.”
The Gallup Organization
“To 1) Speak positively about the organization to co-workers, potential employees and customers, 2) Have an intense desire to be a member of the organization 3) Exert extra effort and are dedicated to doing the very best job possible to contribute to the organization’s business success.”
Aon Hewitt

To get more into the weeds on the conceptualization of engagement, start here, or here.

Return on Investment. Regardless of the differences in conceptualization research shows that companies derive real value from the contribution of engaged employees: including measurable increases in productivity, customer satisfaction, and innovation. But do employees who invest more of their discretionary effort into an organization see value as well? Here’s what Rebecca Ray, PhD, executive vice president of human capital and engagement research at the Conference Board had to say about that.

“People feel there’s too little reward for their discretionary efforts. Most workers today have seen co-workers or family members get laid off, and also have had their benefits cut and bonuses frozen. All this just makes people focus on their survival.”

Access.  Despite the uneven ROI, it seems likely that people who work want access to engagement on the job. Organizations, regardless of their size, purpose, and approach want to access the benefits of an engaged workforce. Which brings us to the question of how is engagement to be realized? What does it take for people to expand their sense of well-being, enthusiasm, and commitment at work? What does it take for companies to become environments in which this can happen?

While there’s no shortage of answers to these questions in the popular management literature, the challenge of employee engagement is far from solved. In fact, the 2017 Gallup State of the Global Workplace Report shows that a whopping 85% percent of people surveyed around the work are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work. Rethinking how we approach engagement is as relevant as ever.

What do you see about engagement in your workplace? What contributes to your experience of engagement at work? Please feel free to leave your comments below.


2 thoughts on “Employee Engagement? It’s Complicated.

  1. Masha – I think you are on to something! Very well researched and logically brought to a hypothesis that can be explored further. Having been in the space for more than 16 years I also have become disenchanted with the concepts of employee engagement, talent management and the like as they tend to imply a passivity on the employee’s side. A more contemporary approach is something like: “How might we empower employees so they can be their whole selves at work?” This might be a way to evolve the concept… Crafting such an employee experience approach will require us to re-think all kinds of structures and relationships within an organization.

  2. Thanks, Nicole. Yes, it’s interesting how organizations that have invested in annual engagement surveys might evolve their approach. Looking forward to exploring more.

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