Though the internet confidently throws out a gamut of paragraph definitions on employee engagement, both practitioners and even academic researchers find themselves facing and using ambiguous versions of it. They are often found using the term ‘employee engagement’ as a psychological state or behavior or a trait, interchangeably. This ambiguity is intrinsic to many conceptual constructs of the HRM field and there are long-standing debates amongst experts on these definitions.
This article attempts to define employee engagement from all these popular perspectives and understand the causes and effects of it – to finally conclude the search for an all-comprehensive definition of Employee Engagement.
Defining Employee Engagement
There are a number of popular and highly relevant employee engagement definitions. These definitions are currently defined through 3 different lenses- the employee, employer and both. In other words, a few of them address only the employee’s role in it (See 1, 2), a few both of the employee and organisation (See 3) and a few only the organisation(See 4).
The Employee perspective
1: The Job role definition
(This definition is observable as the symptoms of an engaged employee.)
An engaged employee is one who employs and expresses themselves physically, cognitively and emotionally at their job roles. [Kahn 1990]
2: The Work task definition
(This definition is observable as the performance of an engaged employee)
An engaged employee is one who has a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is directed towards work tasks with a strong sense of vigour, dedication, and absorption. [Schaufeli et al. 2002]
The Employee + Organisation perspective
3: The Multi-dimensional definition
(This definition is observable as the employee’s and organisation’s performance)
Employee engagement consists of the cognitive, emotional and behavioral components of an individual’s role performance [Saks (2006)] that also results in the performance of the work group level and the organisation. [Selmer et al. (2013)].
The Organisation perspective
4: The Management practice definition.
(This definition is observable as the organisation’s efforts towards employee engagement)
Employee engagement is the collection of organisational strategies that implement employment relationship and organisational communication so as to manage employee development and performance. [Jenkins and Delbridge (2013), Arrowsmith and Parker (2013), Reissner and Pagan (2013)]
Let us consider a case study that demonstrates the applications of these definitions.
A Case study of Sue Thompson
(Excerpt from ‘The Talent Masters’, Bill Conaty & Ram Charan.)
Part 1: The employee
Sue was an MBA from Wharton with three years of tech product selling experience at 3M. She graduated top third in her class and spent 2 years at Mckinsey in consulting. Sue joined Lindell Pharmaceuticals in 2006, and they made her the sales manager of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey territory, where she oversaw over a hundred people. After 2 years, she was outperforming all the other territories and setting new records of sales. In 2008, when pharma selling transformed from product selling to value selling, Sue quickly grasped the reality and set out procedures and metrics required for the new approach. She designed a proprietary system for studying drug usage patterns to give clients insights of improving healthcare while bringing down costs. Her sales force was put through intensive training exercises and she revamped half of her team with people who have business insights along with pharma selling knowledge. She also had a deep understanding of her customer’s business and their P&L.
Part 2: The Organisation
Lindell’s CEO was serious about creating pipelines of future leaders and four of the top executives were out on this task. Sue’s achievements were being watched very carefully. Each of these leaders not only watched these performance numbers but even shadowed Sue during her key client meetings. They studied how she saw things from the clients’ perspective, giving them key insights through financial analysis. They also adored how Sue enabled effective two- way dialogues with her clients. They learned that she reshaped her job and was now out-growing it. Even before she anticipated it, the board concluded based on a thorough analysis of her performance to give her a ‘Brand Manager’ role with P&L responsibility. This promotion fast-tracked her ascension towards an executive position and it opened Sue up to an environment that was ideal for her personal and professional growth.
If Kahn (Definition 1) was to observe this event, he would have concluded that the very person that Sue was at work – passionate and constantly pursuing excellence, made her an engaged employee.
If Schaufeli (Definition 2) was to observe this, he would have concluded that not only her demeanour at work affected her being an engaged employee, but also how she delivered results, adapted to dynamic market conditions and engaged with her clients.
If Saks and Selmer (Definition 3) were to observe this tale of Sue, they would have added how her entire team performed and grew and how the organisation facilitated this process.
If the Definition 4 was to be put to use, Sue’s story would have been a demonstration of Lindell’s culture of nurturing leadership and intently monitoring talent (in other words, their employee engagement strategy), that resulted in the extraordinary recognition of Sue’s achievements.
Likewise, these definitions are schools of thought that attempt to capture employee engagement from their respective scopes. Though each of these has definitive differences, all intend to derive an engaged employee who shall result in an optimised workplace functioning.
Causes and Effects of Employee Engagement
The limitation of all these definitions is that they fail to address whether the engagement indicators are causes or effects of an engaged employee.
Catherine Bailey, Adrian Madden, Kerstin Alfes and Luke Fletcher, conducted their very popular 2017 study that did narrative synthesis by reviewing over 6000 primary pieces of research done on employee engagement. They extracted five causes and five effects of Employee Engagement that were most frequently derived during these studies.
Causes of Employee Engagement
It is important to understand the engagement indicators that are the causes so as to understand the ‘controllable’ portion of the employee engagement equation. These factors, as identified by the study after eliminating thousands of others for insignificance, are listed out as below.
1. Individual psychological states (Personal Resources)
The employee’s individual psychological characteristics are found to play a great influence on their state of engagement. It is found that the positive perceptions that individuals hold of their personal strength and ability allow them to be engaged with the organisation.
Self-efﬁcacy: An individual’s sense of self-efficacy, in other words, how he/she can be of use to the organisation seems to play the most significant role amongst the individual psychological factors.
Resilience:The ability of an individual to quickly learn and adapt to the demands of a job and the organisation is another strong influencer to the employee’s engagement.
Personal capacities: Personal capacities like hope and optimism were identified as strong factors that go a long way in getting the individual engaged with the organisation.
Sue’s psychological state:
Sue was the third top in her Wharton MBA class and she was dispositioned to work hard and be resilient to achieve her results. Her three years of experience at 3M gave her intensive experience in sales processes and methodology. Further to Wharton, her placement in consulting gave her deep learning of business analytics and understanding of P&L. Together, these skills combined together as great personal resources for her role at Lindell.
2. Job-design-related factors (Job resources)
Job resources like feedback, empowerment, opportunities for development, role clarity and autonomy are found to be positively correlated to an employee being engaged.
Feedback: A good feedback mechanism (both from the employee and for the employee) is a strong determinant to employee engagement and has proven to have strong correlations to the performance.
Empowerment & Autonomy: Employees were proven to experience high levels of engagement when they were empowered to do their job functions autonomously.
Opportunities for development: If the employees are able to see growth trajectories and sufficient opportunities for them to grow and prosper in an organisation, they were observed to be better engaged in their job roles.
Role clarity: When an employee understands what they need to do and what is expected of them – in terms of the content of their tasks, work methods and priorities, they are known to have better engagement with the organisation.
Sue’s Job Design
Sue’s job as a territory manager for Lindell was the right job fit for many reasons. She had 3 years of sales experience in the pharma industry. Her knowledge about business and analytics over her 2 years in Mckinsey further fine-tuned her as a manager. She was completely empowered in her role, which allowed her to strategize, train and further empower her team. Lindell had a long line of powerful positions that she could envision to hold in the future if she was consistent in her performance.
3. Perceived leadership and management (Leadership resources)
Supervisory support comes up as the strongest factor for an employee’s engagement that relates to perceived leadership.
Organisations with transformational leadership are also found to be the most engaged amongst the rest.
Other elements of leadership like trust in one’s manager/leader, ethics of the leadership team, supervisory coaching, leader-member exchange and the empowering behaviour of the leader – have all shown a strong positive correlation to engagement.
Not only were the leaders of Lindell passionate about developing new leaders but also they were ready to invest in intently studying their growth path. The leaders shadowed her discussions, without intervention – rightly allowing her to display her sales and business skills. They empowered her to fully and independently function for her territory.
4. Perceptions of organizational and team factors (Organisational resources)
Organizational support, the organisation’s HRM practices, its psychosocial climate, person-organization ﬁt, trust, team-level engagement and communication form the parts of the organisational and team factors that affect employee engagement.
Sue’s Organisational factors
The leadership team identified Sue’s excellence right from the bud and put her on a fast track list for potential leaders – this shows the rich sense of people centricity Lindell nurtures and their keen eye for performing employees.
5. Organizational interventions or activities (Extraneous Resources)
Training and development programmes, new ways of working and other engagement activities conducted by the company, form essential ingredients to driving employee engagement.
Lindell’s organisational interventions
Fast-tracking Sue on her career path through a thorough understanding of her strengths, aspirations and performance, is spoken as a landmark example of how talent management in great organisations work, tells the narrator of Sue’s story, Bill Conaty, an HR veteran.
Effects of Employee Engagement
These are the corollary of an engaged employee or a team and demonstrates its significance. These also provide people-managers strong cases to convince organisations to bet on engagement.
These implications are far-reaching and below given are the most significant five, as derived by the study, from amongst thousands of other effect variables.
1. Performance outcomes of the organisation
A variety of performance outcomes, such as team performance, quality of service, customer-rated employee performance and customer loyalty, is proven to be affected when employees are engaged. Organisation level performance metrics are seen to become drastically better as a result of driving organisational engagement.
Sue’s organisational performance:
During 2008, when pharma selling underwent a transformation – Sue’s customers were one of the first to find value in her value offerings. She gave deep insights to them of their own businesses and P&Ls which lead them to highly rate Lindell’s value offering as a whole.
2. In-role task performance of Individuals
Net promoter scores, service quality and performance appraisal ratings are a few of the metrics that are positively affected when the employee is engaged.
Sue’s task performance:
Sue’s territory was leading revenues amongst all the others in Lindell.
3. Extra-role performance of Individuals
Employee behaviours like organizational citizenship behaviour, innovation and adaptive service offerings can be seen to increase with the increase of employee engagement.
Sue’s extra-role performance
Before even Lindell themselves could sense the change in the pharma selling market, Sue started implementing adequate strategies to hedge her team from its aftermath. She proactively went into retraining them to enable them to refocus.
4. Wellbeing and health perceptions
Wellbeing and health-related perceptions like exhibiting positive health conditions, fewer indications of stress/burn out, vigour, dedication, life satisfaction and morale is exhibited by engaged employees.
Sue’s extraordinary vigour to break through dynamic market barriers is a result of her engaged state.
5. Work-related attitudes
Engaged employees show lesser turnover intentions, high organizational commitment and high job satisfaction.
Though not explicitly stated, everything that Sue did denote that she was engaged and possessed high organisational commitment.
There are scientifically corroborated causes and effects of employee engagement and understanding these can help calibrate that degree of employee engagement in an organisation and predict its impact. These causes need to be understood thoroughly to apply them to organisations and reap the results of engagement. This will also help to take the very qualitative concept of employee engagement a step closer to quantification.