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.