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Though employee engagement is often proclaimed to have a significant impact on outcomes like well-being, productivity, innovation, and retention, its definition is rarely discussed. This post provides an analysis of employee engagement to help employers assess the range of claims made about it, determine whether their employees are in fact engaged, and cultivate engagement if it is found to be lacking.
The Psychology Of Employee Engagement
It might be thought that when it comes to engagement, all that matters is an employee’s behavior. If they are consistently completing their tasks in a timely manner and participating in organizational events, then they are engaged with their job or organization, or so the thought goes.
Though behavior is surely intimately connected with engagement, there is more to it than that. To see why, imagine a hypothetical employee, Sue, who is attending events, getting all her work done on time, and otherwise adequately completing the tasks required for her job. However, she is not mentally present when she completes her tasks, lacks enthusiasm, and doesn’t enjoy what she is doing. Although Sue’s actions suggest she is engaged with her job or organization, her emotions tell another story.
For many academics interested in the topic of engagement, thought experiments like the one above suggest that there is a significant psychological component to workplace engagement. It isn’t enough to be physically present or go through the motions. These actions must be backed by certain thoughts and feelings.
Even though Sue was behaving in all the right ways when it comes to engagement, she wasn’t enjoying it. Participating in events didn’t feel good and completing her tasks brought her no happiness. Partly because of this, Sue didn’t appear to be engaged with what she was doing.
Unsurprisingly, scholars have picked up on the importance of pleasure or enjoyment when it comes to employee engagement. However, some argue that not just any kind of pleasure will do. William Macey and Benjamin Schneider emphasize the role of "positive affective states". These are experiences which that feel good or are pleasurable as well as “energizing” or “activating,” like enthusiasm or excitement. According to Macey and Schneider’s theory, experiences that are pleasant but not energizing (e.g., feelings of relaxation of contentment) don’t constitute engagement.
Scholars often argue that positive affective states like excitement or enthusiasm still aren’t enough. According to Emma Soane, the missing ingredient is “intellectual engagement” which “involves activation and focus to release cognitive effort towards attainment of a goal or solution to a challenge.” Other theorists have come to similar conclusions. Macey and Schneider note that engagement involves “the willingness to invest oneself and expend one’s discretionary effort to help the employer succeed.”
What this means is that employee engagement can’t be passive. It requires active involvement in the form of effort directed at goal attainment and the advancement of organizational initiatives.
Employee engagement is a complex psychological phenomenon that incorporates various states and dispositions. A fully engaged employee must feel energetically good about their job and exert effort to go above and beyond the bare minimum to help their organization succeed.
Employers who are interested in cultivating employee engagement should think about and measure its psychological components. By doing so, they will be in a better position to determine whether their employees are sufficiently engaged and assess any potential techniques that might be put forth as effective engagement enhancing tools.