What is employee engagement?

You’ve heard of it. You’ve decided to measure and improve it. But do you really know what it is? More importantly, why should you care? Employee engagement is no longer just a differentiator— it’s a requirement for any organization that expects to be and stay competitive in an era of accelerating change.

In this article, you will learn...

What is employee engagement?

The definition of employee engagement

Here’s how we define employee engagement: An employee’s intellectual (head) and emotional (heart) connection with an employer, demonstrated by motivation and commitment (hands) to positively impact the company vision and goals.


What can impact employee engagement?

  • Strategic Alignment: Employees can verbalize and actualize the core business strategies
  • Understanding of Success: Employees understand their success metrics at a personal, departmental, and organizational level. They are able to tangibly grasp their contribution to the company's overall success.
  • Clear Communication: Employees trust the company because there is coherent and frequent contact, timely feedback, and clear expectations.
  • Workplace Vibe: Employees feel that the overall environment fosters effective work in everything from physical workspace to interactions with other employees.
  • Growth Paths: Employees have the opportunity to grow their skills through new work challenges and positions over time, in both managerial and individual contributor roles.

Engagement vs. Satisfaction

On the surface, “job satisfaction” and “employee engagement” seem interchangeable. But a happy employee doesn’t always mean a healthy, engaged one.

In the past, this misunderstanding has lead organizations to try and improve satisfaction by simply throwing money at the problem of disengaged workers with increased pay and perks. But when employee engagement is built on motivation and commitment, those things won’t do much to make people stay.

Think of it this way:

  • Job satisfaction: You’re leaning back in your chair. Not unhappy, but not all that excited about your work either.
  • Employee engagement: You’re leaning forward in your chair. You’re excited and motivated to do great work and move the business forward.


A Brief History of Employee Engagement

The term Employee Engagement was first coined by Boston University’s William Kahn in his 1990 paper, Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. In it, Kahn describes how he observed people bringing themselves into and out of moments with regard to their work. He went on to propose that three psychological conditions need to be present as the soil in which engagement might take root: meaning, safety (psychological), and availability (emotional, physical, and psychological).

Before Kahn, the focus of the 1980s was on burnout and how to reduce voluntary turnover. Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson created the “Maslach Burnout Inventory” (MBI) in 1981 to measure emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment. There are now five versions of the MBI, which form the basis of the “Jobs Demands-Resources” (JDI) perspective.

Before burnout, in the mid-1970s, Greg Oldham and Richard Hackman published work that centered around the characteristic of jobs, which they dubbed “Job Characteristics Theory” (JCT). The idea behind JCT is that motivation relates to experiencing psychological states while working, which are affected by the characteristics of the job itself. To measure this, Oldham and Hackman constructed a JCT survey that asked about the psychological states of meaningfulness of work, personal responsibility, and knowledge of outcomes.

Following World War II, a psychologist named Frederick Herzberg proposed something called the two-factor theory, which showed that satisfaction and dissatisfaction at work nearly always arose from differing “hygiene” and “motivator” factors. He used these factors to explain why some people work hard and others don’t. To conduct his research, Herzberg interviewed 200 accountants in Pittsburg using the “Critical Incident Technique” (CIT), which Colonel John C. Flanagan developed for the Aviation Psychology Program of the United States Army Air Forces.

Perhaps most interestingly, the study of organizational dynamics can be traced back to original thinkers Mary Parker Follet and Lilian Gilbreth in the 1920s. Follet studied power and the motivating desires of the individual vs the group by observing group dynamics in community gatherings across New York. But her ideas were largely forgotten after her death, until years later when researchers rediscovered Follet’s writings and began to reassign credit to her.

Modern engagement thinking

In 2002, four researchers (Wilmar B. Schaufeli, Marisa Salanova, Vicente González-romá, and Arnold B. Bakker) created a new instrument to measure the concept of engagement, which they published in a paper titled, “The Measurement of Engagement and Burnout: A Two Sample Confirmatory Factor Analytic Approach.”

The paper introduces three factors for the positive psychology construct of engagement: vigor, dedication, and absorption. The survey instrument they created to measure these factors, called the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES), has become the most commonly used scale in academic papers for measuring engagement. The third factor, absorption, is reminiscent of another breakthrough concept that was already gaining popularity back in America.

During the same year Kahn published his employee engagement research, University of Chicago psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, published a book titled Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi undertook one of the largest psychological surveys ever—interviewing experts (i.e., athletes, surgeons, chess players) before moving on to pretty much everyone else—including assembly line workers, teenage motorcycle gang members, and Navajo sheep herders— and asking them about times when they performed their best.

The word that kept popping up in interviews when people described performing at peak levels was “flow.” While Csikszentmihalyi’s research was groundbreaking, it was more anecdotal than empirical. So the topic of flow went out of vogue until about a decade ago, when advancements in brain imaging opened new ways to research and measure brain function during the state of flow. Neuroscientists have now confirmed that Csikszentmihalyi was right. A team at Bonn University in Germany even discovered that flow includes performance-enhancing neurochemicals like endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin, which improve everything from muscle reaction times to lateral thinking to pattern recognition—all of which are supremely useful for problem solving.

“Flow sounds great in theory, but few business leaders have mastered the skill of generating it reliably in the workplace,” says Susie Cranston and Scott Keller in a January 2013 article for McKinsey Quarterly. They go on to describe how McKinsey asked 5,000 executives about their own personal peak performance with a team. The responses they heard fell into three categories:

  • Intellectual quotient: rational elements like role clarity and access to the resources you need to get the job done.
  • Emotional quotient: the quality of interactions with others such as mutual respect, sense of humor, and constructive conflict.
  • Meaning quotient: sense of high stakes, challenge, and feeling that something matters and will make a difference.

It’s no wonder that the very executives who consider employee engagement such a top priority also find it somewhat daunting to assess. Engagement forms a center point in any good measurement model, yet there are several driving factors and conditions that influence it positively or negatively within an individual and team. These driving factors (or drivers) and conditions are important because they help transform measurement results into actionable insights.

Insights draw on data to infer conclusions. Good insights help explain why things are the way they are and what will happen next.

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