Welcome back to our series on engagement, where we are now to tackle the real crunch question: How is engagement promoted? As mentioned previously, there is quite some research showing that work engagement is related to important outcomes such as job performance, customer satisfaction, productivity, and decreased absenteeism (Crawford, LePine, & Rich, 2010; Macey et al., 2009; Rich, LePine, & Crawford, 2010; Shimazu et al., 2014). Thus, organizations have every reason to promote it among its employees.
Once more, it is worth going back to the original sources. William Kahn, the founding father of the engagement concept, in his 1990 study took it on himself to identify the factors that contribute to work engagement. In order to do so, he closely studied two very different organizations: A summer camp for adolescents, and a prestigious US architecture firm. Kahn used a combination of comprehensive observation, document analysis, written self-reflections, and in-depth interviewing in order to capture the conditions that made employees engage in, or disengage from, their work. Just to remind ourselves, Kahn’s definition of engagement entails bringing all different aspects of yourself into your work role. Disengagement, conversely, involves withdrawing from the role; performing it as a pre-defined script instead of using your personal resources.
After thorough analysis, Kahn arrived at three broad conditions that seemed to fuel engagement in both organizations: Psychological meaningfulness, psychological safety, and psychological availability (see illustration).
Psychological meaningfulness, according to Kahn, entails a sense of being important at work: Doing something that matters and making a difference. In his study, he saw that this state was promoted by clear, challenging, and creative tasks, where the employee was able to operate with relatively high autonomy. It also helped if the work role was high-status.
Psychological safety, one can note, has recently attracted a lot of attention after Google identified it as the key feature of their most successful teams. But already in 1990, Kahn argued for its importance for engagement. This concept denotes the sense that it is OK to be yourself, express yourself, and experiment at work without fear of reprimands. To no surprise, Kahn saw that this state was promoted by warm and rewarding relationships with colleagues. Big status differences, on the other hand, tended to compromise psychological safety, for instance when the top dog was allowed to interrupt or correct lower-ranking colleagues.
Finally, psychological availability denotes feeling resourceful: A sense of having all the necessary resources to engage and perform the task at hand. Kahn saw that employees that felt both physically and mentally energized were much more likely to engage. Two factors that clearly withdrew from this was insecurity – e.g., not knowing your own status and mandate within the work setting – and interference from life outside of work, e.g. marital problems or worry about children.
For being a 27-year-old study, Kahn’s account of what creates engagement stands surprisingly strong. Not least, it points to a real key principle: The creation of engagement entails both individual and organizational resources. Companies can certainly promote engagement by implementing a number of practices and norms, but engagement also comes down to making sure employees have the personal resources to harness all this. In our fourth and final episode, we will go into how this can be done.