It’s easy to conclude from popular writings and evangelism that managers crave one thing over all others – the engagement of their people. That is, engagement with the work their people do and with the organisation in which they work.
So if managers desire it, how should it be defined, and how do managers achieve employee engagement for their firm? And does high engagement lead to positive outcomes? Does engagement lead to profit?
The problem with engagement is that it’s not been part of mainstream research.
The continuum from motivation through behaviour to performance and on to business outcomes is quite well accepted. Each of the variables – motivation, behaviour, performance and outcome – is reasonably well defined. And the strength of the relationship between each is known. Even leadership as a moderator on motivation has been well researched and there’s a good degree of clarity about how good leadership affects business. Not so engagement.
Ultimately managers want to fiddle with some variable within their control that affects performance. All things being equal, employee performance leads to desirable business outcomes.
So this is the key issue. Managers must be able to fiddle with engagement and the things that cause it and get desirable business outcomes. If they can’t, the engagement concept or variable is not much use. But before they can fiddle with anything, engagement must be understood.
Firstly, engagement is ill-defined. It’s many things: a sense of emotional attachment to the organisation, a desire to stay with the firm or in the discipline, an enthusiasm for the work or organisation or a personal state or inspiration drawn from the work or organisation. The best definition seems to be “a positive and fulfilling state of mind” that is “characterised by vigor, dedication and absorption (in the work context)”1.
Secondly, there’s no universal agreement that it does indeed lead to performance. Yet it is considered desirable.
And within this, it’s not clear what the employee engages with: their work, their career, the organisation or even just their colleagues. Employees can be engaged with the work but not with their present employer.
This lack of clear definition makes it difficult to understand the practical use of engagement as a measure of employee state of mind.
Engagement is typically measured by asking the staff. In essence they are asked confidentially “do you feel engaged (with work/career/organisation)”. There are two popular surveys: Gallup’s Q12 or the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES). Each instrument asks a set of questions and engagement is deduced from the answers.
The two differ. Q12 assesses the twelve antecedents of engagements – for example, meaningfulness. Conceptually, if the person feels their role in the organisation helps them derive meaning, they are considered to be engaged.
UWES considers that if the person feels a dedication, if they work with vigor or if they are absorbed in the work/career/organisation, one can surmise that they are engaged. UWES asks seventeen questions – five attributable to dedication, six to vigor and six to absorption.
Each question is scored in both instruments on a scale 1-5 and a mean score for the person, group, department or firm can be determined. A mean can be derived for each construct (like meaningfulness or dedication, depending on the instrument used) and for engagement as a whole.
Returning to the issue, if engagement is to be useful to a manager as a concept to improve their firm, any measure of engagement must itself be useful.
What matters is threefold:
- To be able to compare the overall results for the person, group, department or firm with norms for other people, groups, departments and firms – and draw inference about low scores.
- To be able to identify specific areas of engagement that are low – for example, identifying imbalance in the job demands and job resources when using the Q12 instrument – and draw inference about these.
- To be able to suggest management intervention which, if undertaken, will improve engagement.
This latter point shows that engagement is relative and that surveys must be repeated many times as intervention takes effect and engagement improves.
Measurement is one thing. Determining appropriate intervention to make improvement is whole different ball game. We discuss elsewhere in blogs and articles how managers might use concepts like engagement in their everyday task of management. Engagement can be treated for the purposes of practical use like motivation or leadership.
Practically, it’s a question of trial and error. But it takes further analysis to determine what to try and how to use error.
Does engagement lead to profit?
Engagement is a concept like motivation or leadership. It is less well conceptualised than these other management concepts and there is little academic support for the connection between a person’s engagement and their performance on the job. That weakens support for engagement as a measure and as a useful management tool.
Nonetheless, there are measurement instruments and these can be used to suggest wither engagement in the firm is above or below average. As such, managers can determine where engagement is deficient and hence what interventions they might attempt to make improvements.
Assuming that there is a link between personal engagement with career, work and firm and personal performance on the job, it is likely that high scores in engagement will result in positive business outcomes.
1. Bakker, A B & Leiter, M P (eds.) (2010) Work Engagement: A Handbook of Essential Theory and Research, Psychology Press, New York.