Employee engagement is dead, long live…employee engagement

Written by Ali Shalfrooshan, Head of International Assessment R&D

Over the last two years, we have all been doing a lot of soul searching. Every aspect of how we define, perceive, and feel about the workplace has gone through a significant change.

Despite many challenges, one of the positive outcomes we’ve experienced is the more open acknowledgment and appreciation of the fact that we are all living, breathing, thinking human beings. The blurring of our home and work life has led to more open discussions on a range of topics including the importance of well-being, diversity and inclusion, and our fundamental purpose.

Whether this expression at the organisational level is fully authentic or just reflects a more open dialogue has yet to be established. Nevertheless, ‘The Great Resignation’ has highlighted that employees are looking for more in their job and are rejecting a ‘transactional’ relationship with their employers.

‘The Great Resignation’

The reality of ‘The Great Resignation,’ its antecedents, and its impact are all likely to be more complex when truly dissected. However, the volume of people resigning from roles is hard to debate, especially at a time of economic instability. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that roughly 8.3 million Americans quit their jobs across July and August 2021. This phenomenon is also reflected in the UK according to Sanjay Raja from Deutsche Bank. He says that analysis of national data suggests people in 2022 are resigning at the highest rate since 2009 with “historically elevated levels of workers leaving the labor market entirely.”

A range of reasons has been cited for this phenomenon, but many have identified significant issues with employee engagement at its core. Management consultant company Gallup highlights that engagement has been particularly low over the pandemic, with over half (51%) of employees reporting to be not engaged at work.

The problem with employee engagement

For almost 30 years, employee engagement has been measured by organisations soliciting employee opinions and asking whether they are satisfied. Despite being used extensively and a core tool for gaining insight into employees, the relationship between organisations and engagement surveys has been relatively complicated.

Many employers have grown frustrated with the process and would argue that they have not got the value they were hoping for. Many employees are similarly frustrated, seeing it as a box-ticking exercise and feeling like the opinions and feedback they share are not being heard.

From an employee’s perspective, the lack of action is probably the largest problem with the employee engagement survey process. However, I would argue that there is another significant problem with engagement surveys, that impacts both employees and employers, that is not typically discussed: Are engagement surveys actually measuring employee engagement? Are we measuring it accurately and are we capturing the real issues that are leading people to resign?

What is the definition of employee engagement?

Engagement is typically something that organisations are looking to foster in their employees, as the evidence suggests individuals with higher engagement typically have:

  • Higher productivity
  • Higher revenue
  • Higher innovation
  • Are less likely to leave

This is why it is such a sought-after quality and is a metric for success. However, despite the proliferation of surveys, historically there has been limited consensus about how it is defined and measured.

The term ‘engagement’ has been used to refer to overt positive behaviours (e.g. effort), job characteristics (e.g. autonomy), organisational features (e.g. brand), or an amalgamation of them all. This merged set of useful constructs seems to be the most common conceptualization of engagement, with very few keeping the most important element – the human being – at their center, whose experiences and psychological state is what defines engagement.

What is particularly interesting is that despite this more human aspect of the model being lost, it was at the very heart of its initial conceptualization by William Kahn over 30 years ago. Kahn was the first researcher to use the phrase ‘engagement’ and advocated that a key component was the sense of meaning an individual drew from their work.

Researchers such as William Macey and Benjamin Schneider advocated for more conceptual clarity. They highlighted the need to separate this psychological state of being engaged from the drivers that lead to being engaged (e.g. job and organisational characteristics) and the outcomes (e.g. productivity, innovation), which are historically combined and packaged as ‘engagement.’

What is ‘real’ employee engagement?

Employee engagement is defined by many researchers and practitioners as a psychological state, which is both pervasive and persistent.

Based on our work with organisations over the last 10 years, we define engagement as a positive work-related state in which an individual experiences a sense of meaning, enthusiasm, and absorption in their work and identification with their organisation. More details of those four pillars are provided below:

  • Meaning: The extent an individual experiences a sense of meaningfulness and purpose that they can draw from their work
  • Enthusiasm: The extent an individual draws enthusiasm and energy from their job
  • Absorption: The extent to which an employee becomes immersed and absorbed in their work
  • Identification: The extent to which an individual feels emotionally attached to their organisation

This state of engagement is at the heart of being engaged, and like any state, it can fluctuate depending on the work environment. Therefore, when trying to address employee engagement you need to understand and measure three explicit areas:

  1. Features of the work environment that drive us to be engaged
  2. Psychological state of being engaged
  3. Positive outcomes that are related to being engaged
Why does employee engagement matter?

Our own research has shown that the state of employee engagement is actually more predictive of performance, productivity, and a desire to stay at the organisation than any job characteristic that is typically highlighted (i.e. effective leadership, salary and compensation, etc.).

By being able to measure engagement accurately, not only can we understand the true levels of success, but organisations are also better able to diagnose issues, identify impactful solutions, get at the heart of the human experience, and address ‘The Great Resignation.’

The past two years have highlighted how the human element of being an employee is so important and needs to be acknowledged. Organisations need to ask themselves:

  • Are we providing a work environment that gives employees meaning?
  • Are we creating an identity that they are proud of?
  • Do we provide jobs that energize our workforce?

By focusing on these more fundamental human needs, you will be amazed by how much more employees can contribute.

So, the rumours about employee engagement’s demise may be too strong. With a focus on greater accuracy, its true potential can be leveraged. Employee engagement is dead, long live employee engagement!

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