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.

 

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

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.

 

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

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!