Employee Engagement: What's That Mean?

I hear the term "Employee Engagement" and I cringe. It seems that every company and every manager has a different definition and motivation behind using this as either an excuse for what's wrong or a means to drive change and improvement. So what does it mean?

According to Macey & Schneider (2008), some believe that the term "employee engagement" implies value beyond traditional work values while others believe engagement equates to higher profitability through customer satisfaction and employee retention. While all the definitions and reasons have valid points, the meaning of employee engagement is still elusive and ambiguous at a basic level.

Much of this ambiguity is due to a "bottom-up" approach many companies use which demonstrates a theoretical relationship between employees and the need to interpret results into actionable items. This concept makes me wonder what the consequences of action items are on the bottom-line or are companies just spinning their wheels trying to find elusive answers. Personally, I don't necessarily see a connection between employee attitudes related to outcomes like turnover and productivity and engagement (more on this later).

Engagement Defined

Engagement can be defined as a trait (positive views of life and work), state of being (feelings), or behavior. Job satisfaction, commitment, involvement, and empowerment all have relevance to each of the definitions listed and can be measured in some form or fashion. It is also conceivable that all employees are "engaged" but at different levels and meet different criteria depending on the frame of reference being used. Combine all this together and you will only get an elusive construct of how "engaged" your company really is and be no closer to solving the mystery of employee engagement.

So to be successful, companies and managers need to define engagement in a way that makes since to what you are trying to accomplish. This will lead most to define engagement as a behavior with goals designed to change both employee and organizational behaviors.

Engagement in Practical Terms

  1. Most of us equate success though time spent/commitment and effort on the job; role investment. Most employees are more likely to invest their time in roles that are perceived as important to them. This serves their self-identity, aligns their work with personal goals, and creates an investment in their role performance. Instead of asking them to do more, ask them to do it differently (quality, not quantity).
  2. If we ask employees to "go above and beyond" we will typically get the eye roll or the deeply accented sigh indicating annoyance. There are invisible boundaries that must be navigated to distinguish between "doing more than what is desired and "going beyond what is typical." To accomplish this, ensure that "what is beyond typical" is normal under extraordinary conditions. In other words, doing something extra would be considered doing something normal when normal conditions don't apply. This is also effective at defining a framework for normal work conditions.
  3. Clearly when someone is asked to take on extra work/roles (role expansion), it is viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate that we are capable of doing what is necessary to achieve a promotion. But what if the employee doesn't want to take on extra work/roles if asked? First, if you review the roles of all employees, it should become clear as to which ones are performing a greater number of tasks at varying extents. This is largely due to how an employee uses the autonomy that is given by the manager. Motivation and job satisfaction is attributed to autonomy, skills/knowledge, and purpose (Pink, 2008). So naturally, some employees are experiencing role expansions and they don't even know it. Use this information to establish a framework to indicate to those that are achieving this and the benefits it provides. Further, role expansion is related to self-worth and self-confidence which provides value through initiative, productivity, and motivation.

In Practice

These three terms can be used as a starting point no matter how employee engagement is defined to meet company's goals. These behaviors go beyond normal expectations and can set the stage to further develop personal initiatives and characteristics, in addition to creating employee-driven change for the success of the company. If you have noticed, these behaviors also have an emphasis on adaptation. One commonality among all definitions of employee engagement is adaptation to an ever changing environment. While we all need to be flexible and adapt to differing circumstances, we need to be laser focused on how we define engagement, implement strategies, and understand the intended consequences designed to serve the company's purpose. This is especially true as we jockey for that slight competitive advantage that comes with creating a behaviorally engaged workforce.

©  Darrielle Ehrheart | October 30, 2014

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