Engagement: That special quality
Anyone who’s had to lead has, from time to time, experienced frustration at a perceived lack of commitment and dedication from their people. Some business owners have lamented the lack of owner’s mentality in their people. Similarly, high ranking executives and directors might have asked:
How do we get our people to go above and beyond?
Or, how can we get our people adopt:
The [insert organization name] Way?*
You might be wondering how to get your team to care as much as you do. Even if you’re not in a leadership position, you might have wondered how you can feel excited about coming into work every day, instead of just some days.
For all these scenarios, organizational psychologists have worked to identify, define and measure an important concept: Employee Engagement.
When considering engagement, it’s useful to learn from both practitioners and researchers. Anyone looking to develop their own engagement survey will likely find other practitioners grappling with the right measurement to move the needle on engagement levels throughout the organization. Yet, without rigorous academic research, there’s a high possibility you’re getting an incomplete view of engagement (and potentially measuring the wrong thing).
A cursory google search can tell you fairly quickly how practitioners approach employee engagement. Here are some resources:
1. Qualtrics Engagement Survey
2. Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey
3. Culture Amp’s Employee Engagement Survey
Although there are subtle differences, for the most part, Qualtrics and Culture Amp approach engagement in similar ways (note: Gallup’s approach is slightly different). Their engagement measure consists of four items:
1. How proud employees feel to tell people where they work.
2. The motivation to go beyond the role (i.e., above and beyond what’s in their job description).
3. The extent to which employees would recommend the organization, as a great place to work, to family and friends.
4. The extent they see themselves working at the organization in two year’s time.
Engagement is clearly multi-dimensional; it’s not any one thing.
Researchers have examined employee engagement since the early 90’s (note: it was described as psychological presence back then).
Macey and Schneider (2008) distinguished the concept from related constructs like: job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job involvement and empowerment.
This is important to consider when carrying out a survey effort to ensure that you’re measuring what you hope to measure.
While practitioners have generally focused on the outcome of engagement, Macey and Schneider offer a nuanced perspective, taking a more direct view of the person. They discuss engagement as a trait, state and behavior. Psychologists have long realized that we use terms like ‘trait’ and ‘state’ to make sense of ourselves to others in different ways; traits are longer lasting, and come from inside the person (“that’s just her personality”), while states are temporary and can be influenced externally (“he’s in a bad mood”) (see Chaplin, John and Goldberg, 1988). This implies that engagement can be both internal and external to the individual. Finally, behaviors, unlike states or traits, can be more clearly observed (and therefore lend themselves to clearer measurement).
“At my work, I always persevere, even when things do not go well.”
“At my job, I am very resilient, mentally.”
While these are distinct from outcomes that HR departments care about (i.e., turnover intentions), they more directly capture engagement itself and they should be correlated with engagement outcomes.
So now that we have a handle on engagement, the next question then is, what are the drivers of the engagement?
To answer this question, scientists have examined situational and environmental factors that drive engagement. Early research focused on the nature of the task (i.e., job characteristics), but recent studies have shifted towards conditions around the work (i.e., availability of resources, the boss, coworkers, career progression, mission and vision of the organization; see review of Gallup studies and this meta-analysis).
When attempting to impact employee engagement levels, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s just about the individual. With this mindset, either there’s an inability or unwillingness to be engaged.
However, we know better.
Interventions can be crafted around creating a supportive environment. Practitioners have extended this line of thinking with multiple drivers of engagement including:
- opportunities to learn and grow
- organizational mission/purpose
- having managers that care about employee progress and development
- opportunities to be challenged and do meaningful work
It’s important to blend the insights of both practitioners and researchers.
What practitioners defining as engagement are the result of engagement, not necessarily engagement itself. For accuracy and precision in measurement, an engagement survey should attempt to include states and behaviors, in addition to final outcomes.
Managers will often assume that employee engagement is a function of their personal willingness to do something, but research has shown that situational and environmental conditions matter just as much. These drivers allow interventions to go beyond targeting any specific individuals, but to create a work environment for the benefit of all.
It may be unreasonable to demand that your employees have an owner’s mentality (and if you’re not actually giving them equity, it’s disingenuous). However, what is reasonable and achievable is to create an environment where people feel inspired; feel enthusiastic about their job; feel like going to work in the morning; and persevere, even when things do not go well.