Engagement, pt 2: How to Measure It

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 07.48.30

So we are back to the topic of engagement, the motivational state that has garnered such immense interest in recent years. Last time, we concluded that engagement refers to a broad state that entails bringing your whole self to work; investing cognitive, physical, and emotional resources in the task at hand (Kahn, 1990). We also noted that there are many “engagement” measurements out there that do not abide to the established scientific definitions. Today, I thought we would take a closer look at the measurement issue, and try to arrive at some conclusions about how to do it right.

Interest in measuring work engagement has skyrocketed in the 2010s. This is partly due to the research showing engagement’s relatively big impact on outcomes like job performance and customer satisfaction (e.g. Crawford, LePine, & Rich, 2010). Another contributor is the wider development away from rigid, annual processes in HRM, leading to a questioning of the classical employee survey. This practice has been accused both of measuring the wrong things – e.g., the rather passive state of job satisfaction instead of active engagement – and for measuring them in the wrong way, first and foremost too seldom. These are both very valid points: Kahn noted already in 1990 that a core feature of engagement is its fluid nature. Later studies have confirmed that engagement indeed does fluctuate quite a lot over the course of days and weeks (e.g. Breevaart et al., 2013). Only measuring it once a year will thus yield a very incomplete picture.

The market has been quite fast at offering new solutions, e.g. in the form of so-called pulse surveys of engagement, where you ask some very brief questions on a daily, weekly, or bi-weekly basis. This is all very good, provided that the questions actually measure the right thing – remember that many “engagement” instruments actually measure something else. Most notably, it seems like many of the tools out there ask about job resources, such as supervisor support, development opportunities, and rewards. These might indeed contribute to engagement, but do not represent engagement per se. A tool that claims to measure engagement must ask about the employee’s mental state; preferably whether they feel that they are going at their work tasks with everything they have.

Besides the frequency of measurement and the importance of asking the right questions, there is a third measurement issue  that has to do with the type of data gathered. The absolutely dominant way of measuring engagement today is through self-report surveys. This is standard procedure, since we have long assumed that internal psychological states are too difficult to capture in any other way than by asking people themselves. However, digitalization has changed things. The ease of gathering large-scale data has opened up new opportunities to gather data on other indications of engagement.

Fuller (2014), for instance, suggested that employee surveys be complemented with direct measures of the concrete behaviors that engagement tends to result in. Some examples of measurements could be:

  • Network analysis looking at the number of connections created between different workgroups. Engaged employees tend to spend more time building meaningful relationships with people outside their immediate workgroup.
  • Number of employee-initiated initiatives currently active within the unit or organization, relative to the number of standardized processes.
  • Time spent on direct collaboration with clients, customers, or other important stakeholders.

These are just some examples of how digital data collection can open up for more creativity in engagement measurement. By adding data points like the ones listed above, we can actually start capturing the behavioral correlates of the inner state of engagement. After all, it is these expressions in action that organizations should be most interested in.

Now we have covered some key points when it comes to measuring engagement. Next time, we will move on to what research is saying about how to actually promote it.


Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/seenful/

Engagement, pt 1: What It Is and What It’s Not

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 16.10.17

Frequent readers of this blog may have noticed that I have a thing for going at hyped concepts. Now the time has come to scrutinize one of the real crown jewels of that genre, namely work engagement.

As noted by Saks and Gruman (2014), there has been a virtual explosion of interest in work engagement over the last decade. There are several reasons for this. One is the general increase in attention to human capital as the number one strategic asset of organizations, and the ways to leverage that capital. Another is the rather vast number of studies showing that engagement is related to job performance, profitability, and productivity (e.g. Crawford, LePine, & Rich, 2010; Macey et al., 2009; Shimazu et al., 2014). A third factor, finally, is with all likelihood the famous Gallup study saying that about two thirds of American employees are disengaged. As we shall see soon, there is reason to regard this finding with certain care.

When a concept gets the kind of hype that engagement is experiencing, we tend to lose sight of definitions. Often, the term is portrayed as a magical silver bullet. What is the problem? Engagement is the answer. This leads to a wishy-washy use of the term, and then it loses its value. Instead, we have everything to gain from trying to keep the definition clear.

So, what it work engagement, really? Let’s go back to the sources – in this case, Boston psych professor William Kahn, who in 1990 wrote the seminal article defining the concept. In Kahn’s view, the central feature of work engagement is something very akin to what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg would later popularize as “bringing your whole self to work.” At every given moment of the work day, according to Kahn, employees are bringing in and leaving out various parts of their personal selves. Work engagement is a state where the employee brings all aspects of his or her self to perform the work role; a sense of being able to draw on all your knowledge, skills, abilities, emotions, etc. to do a really good job.

The second very influential contribution to the definition of engagement came in 2002, when Schaufeli et al. defined it as a state of “vigor, dedication, and absorption”. Vigor here refers to an energized state where you go about your work with force and resilience. Dedication means feeling enthusiastic and challenged at work, while absorption involves being completely concentrated on the tasks at hand.

Drawing on the above two definitions, we can conclude a few things about work engagement as defined in research:

  • It denotes a broad motivational state, that involves the use of multiple types of personal resources: Cognitive, emotional, and physical ones. Rich et al. (2010) neatly captured this by stating that engaged employees invest “their hands, head, and heart”.
  • It primarily denotes a strong psychological attachment to the task – i.e., not necessarily to the organization. This sets it apart from other work attitudes commonly measured, such as job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Unfortunately, there are multiple measures of “engagement” out there that do not at all concord with the scientific definition of the term. If we look, for instance, at the scale used by Gallup, it rather asks about the respondent’s work conditions – rewards and recognition, supervisory support, and development opportunities. These may very well work as contributors to engagement, but they do not capture engagement per se.

In sum, beware of sloppy definitions when reading about engagement. It is engagement in the above-described form that has all those nice correlations with performance and productivity, so if you want to increase it you need to start by knowing what it is and what it is not.

Since there is so much to say on this topic, I thought we should spend another three blog posts discussing engagement. Next time, we will look closer at how to rightly measure engagement. After that, we will go into the factors that contribute to work engagement, and how organizations can use that knowledge to promote engagement among employees.


Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aotaro/