What the heck is employee engagement?

We live in the age of personal branding where everyone is trying to find their niche, make their mark, and create something never before seen. Academia is not immune to this annoying tendency. A somewhat recent trend has revolved around the idea of engagement in the workplace. It seems there is a tangled list of terms like job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and work engagement, with perhaps the most trendy being employee engagement.

In a quick search using the GW’s Library database Summon by Proquest that searches over 2 billion records, I found over 1000 peer-reviewed journal articles published in the last five years with the phrase “employee engagement” in the title alone. And the term appeared over 18,000 times in any part of a journal article since it was introduced by William Kahn in 1990.

So what the heck is employee engagement?

Two recent articles provide some much needed clarity. The first is Shuck, Osam, Zigarmi, and Nimon’s (2017) article “Definitional and conceptual muddling: Identifying the positionally of employee engagement and defining the construct” published in HRDR earlier this summer. The second – coming from the first author’s award-winning dissertation – is “Exploring different operationalizations of employee engagement and their relationships with workplace stress and burnout” published in HRDQ by Anthony-McMann, Ellinger, Astakhova, and Halbesleben (2017). Both articles provide some much-needs insight into this question and I thought I’d share some of what I learned from these articles.

As mentioned above, employee engagement comes from Kahn (1990) who described what he called personal engagement as,

“…the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s ‘preferred self’ in task behaviors that promote connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotional), and active full role performances” (p. 700).

Both Shuck et al. (2017) and Anthony-McMann et al. (2017) point out that various frameworks have emerged on the topic including the needs-satisfaction, burnout-antithesis, job satisfaction, and multidimensional frameworks. It would be too cumbersome to go into depth on them all in this post but I encourage you to check out Anthony-McMann et al. (2017) for a nice summary of each just mentioned.

Okay, but still, what is it?

Shuck et al. (2017) review the literature and point out that employee engagement can be defined as,

“…a positive, active, work-related psychological state operationalized by the maintenance, intensity, and direction of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral energy” (p. 269) [those are their italics, not mine].

Now we’re getting somewhere. Employee engagement involves “an active pull toward performance” involving “proactivity, focus, and initiative“; it’s more of a state than a trait; it applies to one’s work; and, it can be measured by looking at people’s thinking, emotions, and behaviors (Shuck et al., 2017, p. 265-266).

The authors go on to compare employee engagement with other “engagement-type literature” and discuss how its meaning and place in the research is different from other constructs, which I encourage you all to check out if you’re interested (Shuck et al., 2017, p. 269). It’s quite a defense of the construct.

But how is it measured?

As you can imagine, there are several ways to measure it, but Anthony-McMann et al. (2017) use the ISA Engagement Scale, which stands for the three types of engagement measured by the scale: intellectual, social, and affective engagement. In their article, the authors test to see how these three measures of engagement are related to workplace stress and burnout. They provide a lot of interesting findings on employee engagement as it relates to workplace stress and burnout, but perhaps the most fascinating to me was an implication around social engagement:

“…the most important engagement-related initiative an organization can undertake might be one in which leaders, coworkers and peers are trained on how to create and foster environments conducive to the development of positive relationships at work” (p. 189).

Terms like employee engagement easily fall prey to what Shuck et al. (2017) call “blatant misuse of terms and unwillingness of researchers to use terms in the way they were intended (and developed in seminal works)” (p. 277). Thus, it is vital that researchers continue to embed their research within operationalized constructs developed by seminal authors. Deviating from this may appear innovative or trendy but will leave readers confused as to what the heck we’re really talking about.

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