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.