Demystifying and Deconstructing Employee Engagement

Employee engagement – a concept misunderstood

Employee engagement is one of the most misunderstood concepts and misused terms in Human Capital practice. HR practitioners – and even the leadership within organisations – often lack a comprehensive understanding of employee engagement.

Numerous theories and definitions abound, however, articulating a singular, concise definition has proven to be a challenging task. Some consider employee engagement to be synonymous with employee satisfaction. Often it entails a reference to employee motivation. Others may use the term ‘extra discretionary effort’ in defining an engaged employee. But most get lost in the variety of engagement manifestations and employee behaviours, completely missing the root cause of the behaviour itself. Employee engagement encompasses all of these things and is ultimately about business success. However, without a concise, clear and accurate definition of the term, it remains open to misconception, resulting in an inability to both measure and manage employee engagement effectively.

So what is employee engagement?

In 2006, The Conference Board (a non-profit business membership and research organisation from the USA) published Employee Engagement, A Review of Current Research and its Implications. Their report was based on 12 major studies on employee engagement published by top research companies such as Gallup, Towers Perrin, Blessing White and The Corporate Leadership Council. The Conference Board reviewed this extensive data and formulated a composite definition and set of key themes that crossed all the studies. The definition reads as follows:

“A heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his / her organisation, which influences him / her to exert greater discretionary effort to his / her work.”

This definition highlights the two main components of engagement:

  1. An emotional connection to the organisation (we term this attraction: the ATI index).
  2. The exertion of extra discretionary effort into one’s work (we term this activation: the ACI index).

Although simple and clear, underlying this definition of employee engagement is a complex concept that cannot merely be measured by determining the extent to which your employees are content with various aspects of their work environment.

Your employees may very well be satisfied with what your organisation provides them with and offers them, i.e. responding with high levels of attraction to your organisation, but this will not necessarily mean that they are activated in their jobs. By the same token, employees may be highly activated in their jobs, i.e. work engaged, but they may have lost that emotional connection to the organisation and would be very happy to do the same job in any other organisation.

Unless these two main components are aligned in a positive sense, an employer cannot expect employees to exhibit the right types of business-enhancing behaviours (in a sustainable manner) that will lead to your organisation’s success.

In the context of this definition of engagement, and a series of research done in Organisational Health Psychology, what needs to be understood and measured is employees’ psychic state of mind.

What do we mean by state of mind?

As the two main components of engagement, attraction and activation shape the level and character of an employee’s relationship with an employer, forming a typology of employee engagement characters.

Through our engagement framework – designed to measure your employees’ state of mind and not only its behavioural manifestations – we have identified seven typologies of employee engagement, each characterised by specific levels of attraction and activation. For each of these typologies, we have determined how your employee state of mind presents itself and what the expected behavioural manifestations are that can either lead to your business’ success, or pose a serious risk to it.

Organisations will have all seven typologies active in differing proportions. The key is to ascertain your organisation’s ‘thumb print’ and then set about on a course of action to move your employees towards and into the engaged zone.

What is the difference between an engaged and a disengaged employee?

Truly engaged employees are characterised by strong and properly balanced activation and attraction. They see purpose in what they do at work and feel that they matter to their organisation. They are highly activated and bring much of themselves to work. They take personal pride in what they do and how they do it. Typically, engaged employees are optimistic, receptive and enthusiastic about what they do and the organisation for which they are doing it.

Disengaged employees have a generally weak relationship with their work and employer, on both engagement components. They have lost connection with their organisation and the purposeness of what they do there. They come to work because they must, not because they want to. If they do want to come to work, it is with little intention of contributing constructively whilst being there. Whichever the case, all disengaged employees are characterised by low levels of activation at work. In other words, they bring little of themselves to their jobs, doing just enough to get by and not get into trouble. Emotionally, they have either signed out from their organisation, are tired and despondent, or will operate in a passive, indifferent zone. They feel no attraction to what they do or the organisation for which they are doing it.

In between the two extremes, there is a typology of characters whose contribution to organisational success is rather questionable. Each of them requires attention and a variety of corrective actions.

Why does engagement matter?

Think service-profit chain and therein lies the answer. The business imperative is quite clear when considering that it is your employees that deliver on your brand promise. The extent to which they deliver on your brand promise is dependent on how engaged they are. In turn, your employees’ engagement levels will be one of the biggest influences on your customers’ experience and loyalty. Consequently, your organisation’s profitability and growth will be a reflection of the combined experience of both your employees and customers.

Your organisation may be leading the pack with a cutting-edge business model and unmatched products and intelligence. But it is of little consequence if your employees are not sufficiently engaged to execute the actions and exhibit the behaviours that will make those bold statements around your strategy, vision, mission and values come to life.

Are you delivering on your employer brand promise (Employee Value Proposition)?

In order for your employees to deliver on your brand promise, you need to take a critical look at how you are delivering on your brand promise as an employer. EVP – an acronym proudly spoken of in many organisations – infuses a tremendous amount of expectation in employees and places onus on your organisation to deliver accordingly.

Essentially, an EVP is far more than a proposition: it is a promise. Organisations that fail to deliver on their EVP will face the consequences, as the effects of ‘lost promise’ begin to materialise in declining engagement levels and increasing business-inhibiting behaviours.

It is at grass-roots level where your employees’ day-to-day experience of their workplace will fundamentally influence their perceptions of your organisation (as an employer) and determine the extent to which they will deliver on your brand promise. A mindset change is required among business leaders today, where equal weighting is given to both employees and customers in the equation that leads to business success. It is people who deliver the service value that leads to satisfied and eventually, loyal customers.

* Look out for our next article in which we will share insights about What Matters Most to Employees.


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