There is a lot of talk about employee engagement and why it is vital for organizational success. Executives strive to have engaged employees because they believe it makes for a more effective workforce. Even a cursory look at what has been written shows that there can be confusion about the nature of engagement. Thus, it is important to answer the question, what is employee engagement?
How Engagement Is Used in Practice
Employee engagement is a concept that has emerged largely from the practitioner community. It has been defined in different ways, and many of the definitions include established concepts like job satisfaction (how much people like their jobs), organizational commitment (emotional attachment to an employer), and organizational citizenship behavior (doing things at work that go beyond the main job). Assessment tools used in practice often combine several dissimilar things into a single index. While all of these different aspects of an engagement tool can be important and contribute to organizational success, combining dissimilar things can lead to ambiguity in scoring because two people can have the same score for different reasons. Furthermore, it is not clear to me that measuring things like job satisfaction and organizational commitment really get at the heart of employee engagement which is more than just liking the job and wanting to remain in it.
What Is Employee Engagement?
The word “engagement” in a general sense refers to active involvement in an activity that goes beyond an attitude or feeling. In the academic literature engagement is more than attitudes. We can best think of it as having three components, referred to as the ABCs of engagement.
- Affective: Whether someone enjoys the work and feels good about it. Many practitioner definitions focus mainly on the feelings side.
- Behavior: Putting forth intense effort on the job. Working hard and working hard for long periods of time.
- Cognitive: Being mentally absorbed in work. Losing track of time and ignoring distractions.
One of the leading assessments used by academics (and sometimes by practitioners) for measuring employee engagement is the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale. It contains three subscales that each generate a separate score. Combined they reflect the ABCs.
- Absorption: The extent to which people get so totally involved in their work that they lose track of time and get totally immersed in what they are doing.
- Dedication: Being inspired by and having pride in the work.
- Vigor: Feeling energized by work and putting forth effort over time.
Engagement As Motivation
It is perhaps best to think of engagement as more motivation than feelings. An engaged employee has a high level of motivation to do the job. Such employees are motivated, not just by external rewards like pay, but by internal motivation to do the job. Thinking about engagement as motivation informs the best way to enhance it. Doing that means creating a positive work climate. Some specific leadership actions to consider:
- Check in with subordinates. Ask how they are doing and be available to provide help with work problems and be a sympathetic ear for nonwork issues.
- Provide clear expectations. Explain what you expect and hold employees accountable for results.
- Empower employees. Once you explain your expectations about what needs to be done, allow employees the freedom to do the job.
- Treat employees with respect. Communicate professionally and avoid unduly demeaning or harsh comments.
- Be more of a coach than a judge. Provide constructive criticism to help employees improve their future performance rather than punish for past mistakes.
- Show appreciation. Employees need to feel that their efforts matter and are recognized.
Employee engagement can be encouraged through supportive leadership that balances the needs of the organization with the needs of its people. Balancing a focus on getting the job done with taking care of people will yield the best results.
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