Worrying about employee engagement

There are things about employee engagement that worry academics and researchers.  They are, on the whole, sceptical of the concept and urge caution in taking on board what management consultants and others offer as engagement advice, tools and promises.

For example, McLeod and Clarke in their 2011 Report to Government –  Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement, say that ‘Early on in the review, when we spoke to David Guest, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Human Resource Management at Kings College London, he pointed out that much of the discussion of engagement tends to get muddled as to whether it is an attitude, a behaviour or an outcome or, indeed, all three. He went on to suggest that “… the concept of employee engagement needs to be more clearly defined […] or it needs to be abandoned ”.

I’ve been trawling research articles to get more of a handle on what it is that worries the academics, given that, as McLeod and Clarke say, ‘there is too much momentum and indeed excellent work being done under the banner of employee engagement to abandon the term’, (and the accompanying activity).

John Purcell in a ‘Provocation Paper’ Disengaging from Engagement, puts it succinctly, ‘The problem is not just one of defining what engagement is but the way it is being used, with implications for the study and practice of employment relations and HRM.  He makes the point that ‘Boiling engagement measures down to one score is particularly worrying.’ (And explains why in the paper).   Purcell discusses two types of employee engagement:

  1.  ‘Work engagement relates to an individual’s psychological state of mind while at work. Work engagement is seen as a ‘positive, fulfilling work-related state of mind that is characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption’.  Purcell makes the point that ‘What emerges [from a description of an engaged employee] is a profile of a person so engrossed in work that it can only ever apply to a minority of employees’.   He discusses several concerns with work engagement, including unconvincing attempts to link work engagement to organisational outcomes, such as labour turnover and performance, the way workers who are not fully engaged are described in negative terms, the dangerous reduction of work relations to individual attributes and failings, and the influence of positive psychology on the types of measures used to test engagement and the way the surveys are often designed.
  2. Employee or behavioural engagement that ‘relates to the managerial practices that appear to be linked to employees becoming engaged. There is usually explicit reference made to social exchange theory and reciprocity, especially to ‘perceived organisational support… The difference between behavioural (or employee) and work engagement is nicely put by Truss (2014): employee engagement ‘is an approach taken by organisations to manage their workforce, rather than a psychological state experienced by employees in the performance of their work; is more relevant to HRM and employment relations; “doing” engagement, rather than being engaged’.  However, employee/behavioural engagement also raises concerns for Purcell.  He is concerned with difficulties in showing conclusive and causal evidence between engagement and performance, lack of an agreed definition of employee engagement, use of a composite score that ranks organisations, and within them, down to the level of the individual line manager.

Other researchers raise similar warnings about engagement (without differentiating in quite the same way,  between work and employee engagement).  In their paper The Meaning, Antecedents  and Outcomes of Employee Engagement: A Narrative Synthesisthe authors report that ‘Out of 5771 items identified in our search, only 172 empirical studies met the quality threshold, suggesting that a great deal of what has been written about engagement could be described as incomplete or under-theorized, leaving considerable scope for further development of the field.’

Confirming this, research presented in  The Meaning and Measurement of Employee Engagement: A Review of the Literature tells us that ‘Employee engagement is an emerging topic that has gained considerable attention from human resources professionals and researchers who posit engagement as a key driver of organizational success. Nevertheless, there exist mixed definitions of the construct and ambiguities in its theoretical underpinnings. This confusion in turn presents problems for both the measurement of the construct and its use when implementing and evaluating strategies aimed at building employee engagement. Such disagreements also raise questions about the reliability and validity of extant measures of engagement, and hence their value to both academics and practitioners.

A further paper Exploring Different Operationalizations of Employee Engagement and Their Relationships With Workplace Stress and Burnout makes the point that ‘Many empirical studies of employee engagement show positive relationships with desirable work-related outcomes, yet a consistent understanding of the construct remains elusive (Saks & Gruman, 2014 ). We propose that this lack of clarity is leading to an increased risk that employee engagement is becoming overly generalized and that, as a consequence, its utility in both theory and practice is compromised.’

Summarising the research quoted above, along with other articles I scanned, there is a common view that there’s confusion and lack of clarity around engagement.  This results in academic researchers’ worrying about:

  • How we understand concepts of engagement.  It is evident that different researchers conceptualise engagement differently – Purcell, for example talks about work and employee engagement, others blur these boundaries.  The differences in conceptualizing engagement give rise to different definitions of the term – McLeod and Clarke, quoted at the start, found 50 ‘engagement’ definitions.
  • The lack of context in which we examine engagement.   Several researches commented on how little contextualisation there is in engagement discussions.  They pointed out that different contexts will reflect ‘engagement’ differently.  For example, I did not come across research that looked at the national/cultural differences related to either work or employee engagement (although it looks as if the UK organisation Engage for Success is interested in looking at this).  It is very likely that different national cultures have different norms, assumptions and values around engagement.
  • The normative values and assumptions we ascribe in asking questions on engagement. In the quest for employee engagement, and the amount of news coverage and opprobrium heaped on supposedly disengaged workers we appear to be making an assumption that engagement is good, and non-engagement or disengagement is bad. Take this example, from an article in Forbes: ‘These “actively disengaged” employees wander the halls like ravenous zombies, eager to spread their contagion throughout the organization. No matter how idyllic your workplace culture is, these workers will always pose an imminent threat. That makes identifying and removing them a matter of workplace productivity life and death’.

As Purcell points out, ‘It is disingenuous to portray work in the positive glow of engagement without recognising the very different experience of many who fail to be [psychologically] engaged often for very good reasons. Problems of job insecurity, zero hours contracts and real pay reductions for many do not get recognition’.

  • The question of who or what has power and agency in relation to engagement. If we think that engagement is ‘associated with a sustainable workload, feelings of choice and control, appropriate recognition and reward, a supportive work community, fairness and justice, and meaningful and valued work’ then where does the power and agency lie in ‘doing’ and getting engagement and being engaged?  There are multiple players and factors in the power/agency mix – players include managers, leaders who want to achieve a certain ‘score’, job designers, and employees.  Factors include performance and reward systems, disciplinary and grievance procedures, levels of autonomy and decision making accorded to people and physical work environments.  All of these have a part to play in both psychological and behavioural engagement.

Having looked at some of the research and considered what worries academics and researchers, I’m now wondering if in the day to day search for employee engagement we’re stuck in unexamined clichés and stereotypes of what engagement is and why we are interested in it.   How many organisations spend member time conceptualizing, defining, and contextualizing engagement for their specific organisation, I ask myself?

Perhaps we should be using the research to ask different questions about engagement to arrive at different perspectives on it, in ways that address the academics’ worries, improve practitioner understanding in ways of ‘doing’ engagement and deliver better outcomes as a result of both.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

One thought on “Worrying about employee engagement”

  1. Hi Naomi,

    Thanks for another interesting read. I’m afraid I lost interest in – and patience with – the ‘engagement industry’ many years ago. Your article, though, prompted me to dig out a post on my Informal Coalitions blog that I wrote 10 years ago. Almost to the day, as it happens (12 October 2008)!

    Of itself, it doesn’t offer an answer to your question about ‘doing’ engagement. I was more concerned at the time with challenging the basic concept; in particular, it’s abstraction from the complex social dynamics of everyday organizational practice. I concluded:

    “Treating engagement (however defined) as something that exists separately from specific, local activities, goals and performance is of doubtful value. Instead, the ‘real’ engagement task for leaders is twofold:

    (1) Helping individuals to make sense of everyday events and emerging challenges in the context of their local interactions; and, in the light of this, to take action in ways that contribute to the achievement of local organizational objectives.

    (2) Doing so in ways that also resonate with individuals’ own aspirations and personal agendas.

    Employee engagement, in any meaningful sense, is therefore individual-, relationship-, issue-, and context-specific. It is a matter of:

    orientation – leading to positive rather than negative perceptions, interpretations and evaluations of specific organizational challenges; and

    action – resulting in active rather than passive responses to them.

    I ended with a reference to Peter Drucker’s writing from (at that time) forty years earlier:

    “When talking about strengths in The Effective Executive, Drucker argues that there is no such thing as ‘a good man’ (sic). Good for what? is the question.’” I suggested that a similar logic applies to employee engagement. “There is no such thing as ‘an engaged workforce’. Engaged with what? is the question.”

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