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"There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organization's overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow." Jack Welch

Simple. Except it's not.

Cash flow is easy to measure. You either have enough money to pay vendors, suppliers, and employees, or you don't. So, too, is customer satisfaction: either customers buy from you and interact positively, or they don't. Employee engagement is a more elusive beast. Either employees are engaged... or they're satisfied. Or they're happy. Or they're intrinsically motivated. Or they're not. Or some combination thereof. What, exactly, is engagement - and why does it matter to your organization?

Engagement: A "New" Concept

According to the 2015 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report, most leaders (78 percent) say that engagement is an "urgent" or "important" issue. Engagement emerged as the top challenge that companies face. With all the buzz around the topic, it's worth remembering that engagement is a relatively new concept.

While anecdotal evidence and observation seem to point to a link between engaged employees and performance, it is one that academic research has been slower to tackle in a cohesive way.

The Murky Meaning of Engagement

In "The Meaning of Employee Engagement," William H. Macey and Benjamin Schneider write, "Although compelling on the surface, the meaning of the employee engagement concept is unclear. In large part, this can be attributed to the 'bottom-up' manner in which the engagement notion has quickly evolved..."

It's worth noting that the "bottom-up" manner is precisely what makes engagement work. According to a 2015 edition of the Gallup Business Journal, more than 70 percent of the variance in engagement correlates to the manager, not executive leadership. As Kevin Kruse writes in Forbes, "Front line leaders are the regulators of engagement."

While this may be so, it does make it trickier to clarify the whole concept of engagement academically, which is top-down. Wilmar Schaufeli, professor at Utrecht University agrees: "Although the meaning of engagement at work may seem clear at first glance, a closer look into the literature reveals the indistinctness of the concept... work engagement is easy to recognize in practice yet difficult to define."

A definition, however, is critical. Schaufeli writes, "A Babylonian confusion of tongues precludes a proper assessment, as well as interventions to increase work engagement."

Old Wine, New Bottles

Further muddying the waters, Macey and Schneider wonder if engagement isn't just "old wine in new bottles." They write: "[T]he question remains as to whether engagement is a unique concept or merely a repackaging of other constructs."

Engagement may have been "repackaged" (assumptions that two identical concepts are different because they're labeled differently are known as the Jangle Fallacy) from earlier notions of employee motivation or satisfaction, for example.

One of the difficulties this presents is measuring engagement. Many organizations use surveys and expect "interpretations of the results to be cast in terms of actionable implications." In other words, they want to know what to do with the data.

The trouble is, without a rigorous scientific study of engagement, they don't know what they're really measuring. The action implications then, "will be, at best, vague and, at worst, a leap of faith." Surveys, for example, can uncover conditions that can provide for engagement, but do not directly measure engagement itself.

Defining Engagement

The meaning and interpretations of employee engagement are, according to Macey and Schneider, "inconsistent." As a "folk term," the same word has been used to refer to a:

  • Psychological state (e.g. involvement, attachment, commitment, mood).
  • Performance construct (e.g. effort or observable behavior)
  • Disposition (e.g. positive affect).
Or some combination of the three. So is engagement an attitude? A behavior? A personality trait? Yes? No?

What is clear about the unclear topic of engagement is that organizations have to understand what they want to elicit, encourage, and measure. Businesses face the challenge of creating conditions for "state and behavioral engagement." If they can do this, they give themselves a powerful competitive advantage. The first step is understanding engagement - and its diverse definitions.


Larry Hart

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