Employee engagement has been one of the most talked-about topics in human capital management for twenty-five years. And yet, despite the attention of professionals from every area of the business world—or maybe because of it—the term itself has never gained a universal definition.
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There’s no reason it couldn’t, though. On the whole, all of us who talk about ‘employee engagement’ are broadly talking about the same concept, even if it’s easier to identify in practice than it is to dissect and name. So we took a stab at giving it a proper definition, out of the context of any research study or management theory.
This is our proposed definition of ‘employee engagement,’ and the thinking that went into it.
What it’s not
We know that engaged employees are more motivated than disengaged employees. That they expend discretionary effort on their work. They’re generally seen as being happy in their jobs. A lot of times, these ideas are what people think of when approaching the term.
But these benefits are just symptoms of engagement. They’re not statements about what it is at its core. Engagement is not, for example, a feeling of motivation. Engagement is something that manifests in employee motivation. In order to pinpoint what engagement is, we need to look for the common factor that drives these various symptoms.
We also need to steer clear of defining engagement as job love. Many researchers over the years have labeled employee engagement as a kind of joy or career fulfillment. That doesn’t seem right. Think about people you know who care deeply about their jobs. Are those workers always happy with their performance? Are they always satisfied with their jobs or their salaries? No, of course not. Ambitious and talented people are rarely content with their jobs—there’s always something bigger and better for them to achieve. (That’s why development opportunities are such a key driver of employee engagement.) And employees engaged in high-pressure jobs feel stressed often; potentially more than they feel “happy.” (Though, hopefully, those kinds of employees relish being under pressure.) Defining engagement as job love is getting it backwards. Job love is earned by a number of factors. Engagement is just one of them.
Starting in on ‘engagement’
Part of why ‘employee engagement’ is hard to define is that the word ‘engagement’ itself has a number of meanings. Let’s sort that out first.
Webster’s dictionary has eleven definitions of the verb ‘engage.’ They cover everything from marriage plans to gear mechanics to military battles. Still, all eleven definitions speak to a common theme: ‘engage’ refers to a kind of active, goal-oriented linkage between two things. To engage with something is not to like it, or to become part of it, or even to identify with it. Engaging with something means actively connecting with it to achieve a particular outcome. A gear engages with another gear to turn it; a person makes an engagement with another person to solidify a plan with them.
So to engage with your work means actively linking yourself, and your sense of self, to your work in order to achieve a given performance outcome. It means taking the result of your work personally. And when you take your work personally, you want it to be good. So engagement means (1) you’re investing yourself, and your talents and energy, into creating work that (2) reflects well on you.
Employee engagement makes sense as a deep, personal investment in work. Still, there’s one element missing: the ability to make your investment of talents actually result in good work.
The empowerment element
Employee engagement also demands that the employee be able to do the job. It only makes sense, right? If I were to attempt a job in which I lacked any skill—like if I found myself asked to perform brain surgery—it wouldn’t make any difference how invested I was in the outcome. I’d call that being in over my head, not being engaged.
The notion of employee engagement conveys a certain level of comfort on the job. It doesn’t make you think of someone scrambling to catch up, or someone woefully desperate to make a good impression. Instead, you picture someone who’s found their groove—who knows what they need to do, knows how to do it, and knows how to get better at it. There is empowerment in employee engagement. Empowerment means that an engaged employee is one who is capable of turning their time and energies into good work. Even if a new hire doesn’t know everything they’ll eventually need to do the job, if they’re engaged, they’ll be excitedly learning it. And learning something new is the purest kind of empowerment.
With the addition of the empowerment element, the definition feels complete.
The definition of employee engagement
Putting it all together, this is our definition of employee engagement:
A deep, personal, and empowered investment in work.
Deep because it matters how good the work is.
Personal because it matters to the employee.
And empowered because the employee is capable of delivering a quality that will reward their investment of time, talents, effort, and care.
This, I believe, is a workable definition for ‘employee engagement. It communicates the reality that the chance to continually develop is a critical element of engagement. Someone who is engaged according to this definition will feel motivated, happy, satisfied, and fulfilled as a result of doing good work.
This model also makes engagement easy to measure. All you need are (quantifiable) answers to two questions:
- How invested do you feel in the quality of your work output?
- How empowered are you to achieve good quality work?
Most importantly, this definition doesn’t require an “engaged” employee to be someone who never gets stressed or who is in love with their job at all times. It simply says that an engaged employee is someone who cares about doing good work and is set up to succeed in doing it, both now and in the future.
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