Employee Engagement

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement  is the use of the employee’s’ full physical,
cognitive and emotional energy in fulfilling their job role; the simultaneous use of head, heart and hands.

W.A. Kahn in Academy Of Management Journal 33, 1990. Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work.

This is the seminal definition from the 1990s.   However since then there has been an explosion in definitions. One recent study found over 50 distinct definitions.    This means that while we think we are talking about the same thing when we talk about engagement, in reality we are not.

It also means we are measuring different things.    In fact engagement surveys typically measure a raft of factors that have been around for the last 5 decades.   Job satisfaction and involvement,  motivation,  discretionary effort, citizenship behaviours,   counterproductive work behaviours,  the psychological contract, commitment to and support for the organisation.


Why is engagement at work important?

Numerous reports and surveys claim significant positive relationships between staff engagement at work,  commitment and organizational success. Staff engagement is said to reduce staff turnover rates.

Organizations spend huge sums to assess their staff engagement levels and embark on improvement programmes.   How much of this is hype founded on intuitive thinking rather than solid evidence?

Staff engagement is an individual level concept that cannot readily be aggregated to the organizational level.    Many commercial studies claim to have broad correlations between employee engagement and organizational success.

engagement at work

An example – the 2012 Global Workforce study by Towers Watson found that amongst 50 global organizations those with low engagement scores had average operating profit margins 28% below those with high engagement scores.

This does not mean there is a causal relationship.   It could well be that staff feel more engaged when they work for companies that are successful.

The engagement industry is characterised by poor quality evidence.  Only longitudinal studies that control for all other variables can provide the link between engagement and performance, and none exist.

More interesting is the finding that 40%  percent of employees with low engagement scores said they were likely to leave their employers over the next two years, compared to 24% of  more highly engaged employees.

For most organizations keeping skilled employees is critical.   Improving staff engagement should improve retention rates.

Measuring Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is often measured annually or biannually with a set of standard vendor provided questions to which respondents provide a rating.   Results are typically compared against industry and country benchmarks.

There are many problems with this.    Firstly engagement is context driven.   Every organisation is different.    Different purposes, different structures, different systems and different people.    Comparisons with other organisations and data sets are like comparing apples and oranges, not valid.

Typically rating scales are only 4-5 points.   Almost all respondents use the central two or three points.    This means that in most cases it is not possible to identify differences between internal or external benchmark groups that are statistically valid.

The best approach is to use a rating scale with more points and therefore more sensitivity, and to benchmark against your own organisation at different points in time.

What causes disengagement?

Recognise and try to eliminate those factors and practices that lead to disengagement.

In the always on 24 hour world burn out is common.  Research evidence shows that the following factors are associated with disengagement

  • Conflicting demands of work and family life
  • Lack of clarity on what is expected on the job
  • Lack of control over the way one’s job is done
  • Inadequate support
  • Poor quality feedback or no feedback on job performance

Much of this is down to the immediate supervisor.   When they do not ensure a supportive work environment staff may experience  time pressures, work overload, increasing pressures for more output, as well as a sense of lack of respect and empathy from their supervisor.

In addition the competitive culture of some organizations can lead to more generalised anxiety, with internal politics  promoting cynicism, suspicion and  hostility between staff.

How to improve engagement

Leadership is a key factor.   Work is a huge and vital part of people’s lives.   No-one goes to work to fail.

As Paul Sparrow says

“This is why more and more research evidence is showing – and will show even more so in the future – that the drivers of engagement are already returning to the fundamentals: immediate supervisors and leaders who can do the basic interpersonal tasks with a degree of civility – and beyond that my sense of your trustworthiness, my voice, and our vision.”


Just a few core leadership practices have been shown to impact levels of engagement.

First ensure that your organization has a clearly articulated mission and purpose embodying values that people can identify with.

Leaders must be able to define job expectations so that people know exactly what they are accountable for.   They need to ensure supporting systems and information so their people have discretion in how they go about their work and guidance in problem solving.  They need to ensure that the work environment is not full of obstacles and frustrations.    Constructive feedback, personal coaching and mentoring is critical.

Effort is reciprocal.   If the organization demonstrates a willingness to support staff and help them to learn and develop for career advancement they will be more engaged and committed.

Learn more about engagement
The Centranum Difference