SIOP Impressions: 3 Take-Aways From The World’s Biggest Conference for Work Psychology

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This week, we’ll make a brief pause in the series on work engagement, and instead take a trip to sunny Florida. A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of participating in the annual SIOP conference in Orlando. SIOP is short for Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and makes up the world’s foremost association within this field. Each year, they organize a large conference with thousands of participants, attracting both top I/O psychology researchers and the most knowledgeable, progressive HR professionals.

The primary reason for my trip was to present a research paper on talent management and identity, which was great fun. What was even greater, however, was to take part of all the groundbreaking research and practices that were presented by others. After three full days, my head was crammed with all the interesting stuff that goes on around topics like engagement, selection, teams, performance ratings, and not least talent management. Since SIOP really is a hotspot for cutting-edge I/O psychology and HR, listening in to the discussions here is a good way of getting some hints about where we’re heading. So what are the hot topics? I thought I’d share three of my broad impressions from this work psychology Mecca.

  • Teams is where the action is. The key takeaway from this year’s SIOP? That the sexiest research in our field right now is done in the area of teams. Nowhere are there more cool projects, interesting collaborations, and ground-breaking methods. For instance, did you know that NASA is financing a number of skilled researchers to help them understand how to build the most well-functioning teams for space travels? And forget about surveys and simple observation – these researchers are using linguistic analysis, accelerometers, biodata, network analysis, simulations in extreme environments, and a host of other innovative methods to better understand team dynamics. No doubt, the most ground-breaking findings within our field during the coming decade will come in the area of teams.
  • Engagement is embraced in its versatility. Workshops and seminars on engagement drew significant audience all through – hardly surprising. What is new, however, is that both researchers and skilled consultants are starting to let go of the assumption that there is one golden-standard way of measuring engagement and its drivers. Apparently, big data analyses are starting to show that engagement takes very different expressions in different settings, which might necessitate more flexible measurement. And equally important; the drivers of engagement can actually vary a lot from organization to organization. Sometimes supervisor support is most important, sometimes it’s person-job fit, sometimes it’s something else. Repeatedly, the advice to HR practitioners was: Play around. Try different metrics and items, and see which ones do the trick in your organization. Clearly a new development from a discipline that is usually strict on standardization.
  • Even the Americans are questioning the talent concept. The fact that us Northerners have our issues with concepts like “A players” and “Future Stars” is no news, and no surprise. But now the day has come when even the Americans – scientists and practitioners alike – are starting to wonder if the differentiation of employees into different ranks really is the right way to go. In a crowded debate session, Alan Colquitt of Eli Lilly together with well-known professor Paul Sackett went head to head with the concept of high potentials. They argued that if the future is all about collaboration, team creativity, and boundary-crossing, we must stop focusing so much on singling out a small elite. The speakers were met with protest, to be sure – but just the fact that this debate is now being held at SIOP and draws vast interest says something about where we’re heading.

That’s it for now – of course, we will continue looking into these developments within I/O psychology and HR here on the blog. Chances are, we’re in for an exciting future.

Engagement, pt 3: the Three Hallmarks of Engaged Employees

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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).

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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.



Engagement, pt 2: How to Measure It

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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.



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

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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.



Next Chapter of the Performance Ratings Debate

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No one with an interest in HR and organizational behavior is likely to have missed that there is a lot happening within the field of performance management right now. As covered rather extensively in a series of blog posts here in the fall, a pervasive trend over the last three or four years has been to get rid of the annual performance review (APR) and, most notably, the numerical performance ratings. The idea has been that this highly unpopular process, doubtful both in terms of accuracy and added business value, only takes a lot of time for managers and also is demotivating for basically all employees except the highest-performing ones.

Back in the fall, I cautioned that the scrapping of the APR – overdue and expected as it was – risked hiding the fact that the really difficult issue is still upon us. Because in reality, the task of evaluating employees’ performance has gotten no easier just because the ratings went out the window. And there is still a need to evaluate, if you e.g, want to differentiate some aspect of pay or benefits based on performance.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the “get rid of the ratings” movement has now encountered its first big backlash. In a study performed by CEB with 9,500 employees and 300 HR managers in global enterprises, it turns out that the scrapping of performance ratings often has not resulted in the expected outcomes. Most notably, the quality of the performance conversations that managers hold with employees often seems to drop, since managers have a harder time explaining what they are basing their judgements on and how, concretely, the employee should improve. This also tends to lead to lower employee engagement. What is perhaps even more conspicuous is that managers, while having significantly more time on their hands after the administrative beast of the APR is abolished, spend significantly less time on informal performance conversations with employees. The  drop, according to CEB’s report, is by an average of 10 hours per year.

What does this tell us? That once more a lot of companies have jumped on a bandwagon without thinking through the really difficult underlying issues. Some of those issues are:

  • What should take the place of APRs? Are we dumping formal differentiation of e.g. pay altogether (only likely to work in very “elite” organizations where there really are very few low performers), or do we need a new system to ensure fair and unbiased procedures?
  • How do we make sure that the additional time freed up by taking away the APR is used by managers to improve and enhance ongoing feedback?
  • Have we made sure that managers have the skills and tools necessary to provide effective ongoing coaching and feedback?
  • How do we handle the fact that managers will probably still be just as reluctant to handle performance deficits?

Instead, however, the focus has so far has been exclusively on ratings per se. And of course, they were an easy target to blame for all the deeper-seated problems with performance management. I fear we will now see an equally shallow discussion as the pendulum swings again: “Getting rid of the ratings was a mistake!”

Let us remember that there are good arguments to question the APR: The administrative burden of the process, its doubtful validity, its rigidity, and – not least – the inefficiency of feedback that is given merely once a year. However, just throwing it out is not going to solve any of the hard problems of performance management. Starting by going head-to-head with the above-listed bullet points is a better way to go.



A Guest Blog Post on Satisfaction vs. Engagement

Last week, I did a guest appearance on the startup company Clanbeat‘s blog, telling the rather fascinating story of how organizational psychologists turned their focus from employee satisfaction to employee engagement. This shift has turned out to be pivotal to our understanding of what actually drives performance and motivation at work. You can regard it as the background explanation of why engagement has become the talk of the day in management and HR.

You will find the blog post here!