What is Employee Engagement?

Updated: Jun 14

EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT


Engagement is mainly expressed in such employee behaviors as efforts at work. It is described as the ability to bring all of who we are into our roles [1]. Engaged employees stay focused on their tasks, work hard to accomplish their work-related goals, and fully inhabit their job roles, instead of just working. They are very present in doing their work [2]. According to Macey and his colleagues, engaged employees behave in more persistent ways, respond proactively to emerging threats and challenges, expand their roles at work, and adapt more readily to change [3]. As a result, employee engagement is one of the key predictors of organization’s performance, financial and otherwise [4]. Individual employee behaviors determine the organization’s collective success over time. Performance is a sum of what every employee does every day across the organization.


Term engagement was first used in relation to work by the business consulting firm the Gallup Organization. First academic article on engagement at work was published by Kahn in the Academy of Management Journal in 1990 [5]. Later Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter conceptualized the construct of employee engagement as the positive antipode of burnout, where three dimensions of engagement – energy, involvement, and efficacy are the direct opposites of three dimensions of burnout – exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness [6]. Together these two conceptualizations provided the early theoretical framework for understanding employee engagement.


Even though employee engagement is a relatively new topic, there are a few definitions used in the research literature:

The level to which an individual is attentive and absorbed in the performance of one’s roles. [7]
A high level of energy and a strong identification with one’s work. [8]
Individual's sense of purpose and focused energy, evident to others as personal initiative, adaptability, and persistence directed toward organizational goals. [9]
Positive, work-related psychological state leading to a willingness to invest focused effort towards organizational goals. [10]

There are two definitions of employee engagement that are quoted in research literature most often. One of them belongs to Schaufeli and his colleagues, who define engagement as:

“a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption”. [11]

The three dimensions of employee engagement mentioned in this definition are described as follows:

  1. Vigor – high level of energy and mental resilience while working, the willingness to invest one’s effort in the work;

  2. Dedication – being strongly involved in one’s work, experiencing a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride and challenge;

  3. Absorption engagement is related to how the employees feel about the organization, its leaders, and working conditions – whether their attitude toward these factors is positive or negative [12].

The other of the most popular definitions belongs to Kahn, who is largely credited with introducing the concept of personal engagement at work, and defines employee engagement as:

the harnessing of organization members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances". [13]

The dimensions of employee engagement according to this definition are described as follows:

  1. Physical engagement is related to the physical energy exerted by the employees to accomplish their work-related tasks;

  2. Cognitive engagement concerns employees’ beliefs about the organization, its leaders and working conditions;

  3. Emotional engagement is related to how the employees feel about the organization, its leaders, and working conditions – whether their attitude toward these factors is positive or negative [14].

Despite slightly different perspectives, there are core commonalities between these two conceptualizations of employee engagement, as both of them share similar physical-energetic (vigor), emotional (dedication), and cognitive (absorption) dimensions [15].

THE FLOW


The state of engagement is often simply described as the state of flow. According to Kahn, being engaged means to be psychologically as well as physically present when occupying and performing an organizational role [16]. State of presence described by Kahn, when person’s attention is aimed at a single task or series of related tasks, is also described as being in the flow or in the zone by Csikszentmihalyi [17].

The state of flow is described as the subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of forgetting time, fatigue, and everything else but the activity itself. [18]

There are multiple approaches to understand and study employee engagement. Schaufeli and colleagues in their cross-national study described the difference between trait-like (overall) engagement and state-like (situational) engagement, arguing that engagement is a more persistent and pervasive affective-cognitive state that is not focused on any particular object, event, individual, or behavior.

OVERALL VS SITUATIONAL ENGAGEMENT


There are multiple approaches to understand and study employee engagement. Schaufeli and colleagues in their cross-national study described the difference between trait-like (overall) engagement and state-like (situational) engagement, arguing that engagement is a more persistent and pervasive affective-cognitive state that is not focused on any particular object, event, individual, or behavior [20]. As a result, the construct of employee engagement was initially developed to capture the overall state of employees in regard to their job [21]. Researchers, who view engagement from the trait-like perspective, investigate the general predictors of work engagement – what makes one person more engaged than another.

Sonnentag later introduced the concept of state-like engagement [22]. From this perspective, engagement can change from day to day and even from hour to hour, based on the task at hand, like a moving target. This approach characterizes engagement as a rather situational and temporary experience, which fluctuates within individuals over short periods of time [23]. Researchers, who view employee engagement from the state-like perspective, investigate more immediate factors of engagement – when, in what situations do people experience engagement. Some examples of such factors can be the time of the day, level of workload, etc.


In this post we have reviewed some of the most commonly used definitions of employee engagement; how engagement relates to the state of flow; as well as what are the 2 approaches to studying employee engagement. Feel free to contact Valuable Work and find out how we together can measure employee engagement in your organization!

[1] Smith, K.K. & Berg, D.N. Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Dynamics. - San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1987. - pp. 304. [2] Kahn, W.A. To be fully there: psychological presence at work// Human Relations. - 1992. - 45(4). - pp. 321-349. [3] Macey, W.H., Schneider, B., Barbera, K.M., Young, S.A. Employee Engagement: Tools for Analysis, Practice, and Competitive Advantage. - West Sussex: John Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. - pp. 224. [4] Heskett, J.L. The Culture Cycle. How to Shape the Unseen Force That Transforms Performance. - New Jersey: FT Press, 2012. - pp. 384. [5] Kahn, W.A. Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work// Academy of Management Journal. - 1990. - 33. - p. 692-724. [6] Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W.B., & Leiter, M.P. Job burnout. // Review of Psychology. - 2001. - 52. - pp.397-422. [7] Saks, A.M. Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement// Journal of Managerial Psychology. - 2006. - 21, pp. 600-619. [8] Bakker, A.B. & Demerouti, E. Towards a model of work engagement // Career Development International. - 2008. - 13(3). - pp 209-223. [9] See 3. [10] Albrecht, S.L. Employee engagement: 10 key questions for research and practice// Handbook of Employee Engagement: Perspectives, Issues, Research and Practice. - Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2010. - pp. 3-19. [11] Schaufeli, W.B., Salanova, M., González-Romá, V. & Bakker, A.B. The measurement of engagement and burnout: a two sample confirmatory factor analytic approach// Journal of Happiness Studies. - 2002. - 3. - pp. 71-92. [12] Schaufeli, W.B., Bakker, A.B. & Salanova, M. The measurement of work engagement with a short questionnaire: a cross-national study// Educational and Psychological Measurement. - 2006. - 66(4). - pp. 701-716. [13] See 5. [14] Kular, S., Gatenby, M., Rees, C., Soane, E., Truss, K. Employee Engagement: A Literature Review. - Kingston Hill: Kingston Business School, 2008. - pp. 28. [15] Schaufeli, W.B. What is engagement?// Employee Engagement in Theory and Practice. - London: Routledge, 2014. - pp. 15-35. [16] See 5. [17] Csikszentmihalyi, M. Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. - New York: Basic Books, 1997. - pp. 181. [18] Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Rathunde, K. The measurement of flow in everyday life: Toward a theory of emergent motivation// Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. - 1993. - 40. - pp. 57-97. [19] Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Kleiber, D.A. Leisure and self-actualization// Benefits of Leisure. - State College, PA: Venture Publishing, 1991. - pp. 91-102. [20] Schaufeli, W.B., Bakker, A.B. & Salanova, M. The measurement of work engagement with a short questionnaire: a cross-national study// Educational and Psychological Measurement. - 2006. - 66(4). - pp. 701-716. [21] Bakker, A.B., Demerouti, E., Xanthopoulou, D. How do engaged employees stay engaged?// Ciencia & Trabajo. - 2012. - 14. - pp. 15-21. [22] Sonnentag, S. Recovery, work engagement and proactive behaviour: A new look at the interface between nonwork and work.// Journal of Applied Psychology. - 2003. - 88. - pp. 518-528. [23] Sonnentag, S. Dormann, C., Demerouti, E. Not all days are created equal: The concept of state work engagement.// Work engagement: A handbook of essential theory and research. - New York: Psychology Press, 2010. - pp. 25-38.