Defining Engagement

One of the frustrating things about writing is determining what to leave out of a story, not what to put in. To a writer, every detail counts and every tidbit of information is significant. Yet when every little bit is important, you end up with a bloated mess too long for anyone but the writer.

So inevitably something has to come out. In the case of my special report on employee engagement in this month’s Talent Management, that something was an exploration of the definition of employee engagement.

As I found as I researched, interviewed experts and began the laborious process of assembling a coherent story, there is no widely agreed-upon definition. In fact, an attempt at defining engagement is worth its own story, if not an entire book. Lacking the time to write that book, I hedged and for argument’s sake provided a ready-made definition of engagement as “a measure of how much discretionary effort an employee is willing to give on the job.”

While necessary to avoid subjecting you to a ponderously long story, that sidestep dodged the limitations looming over corporate engagement efforts. While engagement has become wildly popular in management circles and you’d be hard-pressed to find a corporate talent manager not working on it to some degree, the lack of definition and practice is hampering its effectiveness.

Engagement is like a Rorschach test of sorts. What you think it is largely depends on your own experience and beliefs. This Dilbert cartoon paints the lack of clarity another way. As Aubrey Daniels wrote in his blog here last week, “we must move beyond personal experience to demonstrating scientifically validated practices that work wherever work is done.” We’re still a long way from that promised land.

Let’s start with what engagement is not. Employee engagement is not satisfaction, although there is some correlation. Employees can be satisfied with the job, their co-workers and the boss while not being productively engaged in meaningful work. The reverse holds true. A highly engaged person putting in long hours and tons of effort may not be satisfied with the job, career opportunities  and may not even like any of his or her co-workers.

So if engagement is not satisfaction, what then is it? Is it an emotional attitude or set of beliefs about work? Is it a demonstrated behavior with a measurable outcome? Or rather, is it a set of management practices?

The simple answer is yes. Engagement, in practice at least, is all of those things. If the outcomes are positive – resulting in higher individual productivity and better organizational results – why engage in an academic debate? Instead of focusing on the what, focus on the so what. That’s the position USC professor and engagement expert Theresa Welbourne takes in a 2010 paper she sent me as I researched the report.

That paper, called “Engaged in What? So What? A Role-Based Perspective for the Future of Employee Engagement,” acknowledges, to put it in academic-ese, that there is “no clear and agreed upon construct” for engagement. Despite that fact, a number of studies indicate a correlation between higher employee engagement scores and elevated organizational performance and shareholder return. The conclusion: Don’t squander the opportunity to keep something positive moving forward.

Building on a paper she and her colleagues published in the Academy of Management Journal, she offers up a framework of five work roles to help focus engagement efforts. They are:

  1. Core job role: this is what’s on the job description.
  2. Entrepreneur/innovator role: the part we play to come up with new ideas and improve processes.
  3. Team role: the extent we work with others and participate on teams.
  4. Career role: what we do to learn and develop new skills and acquire knowledge.
  5. Organizational role: being a representative of the company.

Welbourne argues that, lacking a clear definition, these roles can frame engagement efforts and shape productive behavior and actions at work. Energy and effort are limited resources and each time we ask employees to engage in one role it may detract from their ability to play another. In other words, asking employees to be innovators means they may not be able to spend as much time and effort on their core job. She writes:

“Using the language of roles helps managers and employees focus on what’s important to drive business strategy because the roles are more concrete than concepts like ‘above and beyond’ behavior.”

The role-based discussion also gives managers a framework for adjusting priorities and engagement efforts as business needs ebb and flow.

Hearing it put in those terms made me feel better about leaving this important conversation out of my final story.