An idea as powerful as employee engagement seems like it should have been around forever. Businesses have always employed people, after all, and people have always done their best work when they’ve cared about the outcome of their efforts. But managers haven’t always talked about the need to engage employees the way they’re talking about it today. Actually, employee engagement is a fairly young idea.
It turns 25 years old this month, to be exact.
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In December 1990, Boston University professor William Kahn published the first-ever mention of “engagement” as we know it today. His groundbreaking paper, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement At Work,” synthesized research from a variety of disciplines to explore what exactly led employees to “attach” to their work. His goal was to “generate a theoretical framework within which to understand the moments in which people bring themselves into” their jobs. In imagining that framework, Kahn gave a crucial new vocabulary to the study of why people care about their work—and gave birth to one of the most important concepts in human capital management.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Kahn’s innovation, let’s recap the five moments that have contributed most to the way we talk about “employee engagement” today.
Source: Michael Bradley Shuck & K.K. Wollard, “A Historical Perspective of Employee Engagement: An Emerging Definition.” 2009.
1. A New Hope: William Kahn, 1990 (link)
The innovation: Investigating and giving a name to the mysterious reason behind why people “engage” with their work.
The idea proposed: Engaged employees come to work as their “preferred selves,” which means they bring their full talents and efforts to their jobs. Disengaged employees, meanwhile, defend their “preferred selves” from their work. Employee engagement requires meaningful work, safety, and “availability” (the capability to achieve one’s desired outcomes). (Click here for our synthesis of these ideas.)
2. Engagement Meets Real Life: Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001 (link)
The innovation: Applying the idea of engagement by proposing it as the solution to the real-life problem of job burnout.
The idea proposed: Employee engagement is the antithesis of job burnout. Whereas organizational psychology has traditionally focused on negative emotional states because they’re easier to identify, Maslach et al. point to engagement as a novel and comprehensive solution that is worthy of further research.
3. Showing the Business Impact: Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002 (link)
The innovation: Demonstrating the link between engagement at the individual level and profit at the business level.
The idea proposed: Following Maslach’s recommendation that engagement be studied further, Harter et al. conclude that engagement drives profitability, forever changing the way businesses view the construct. The world’s interest in employee engagement explodes.
4. Here Come the Management Gurus: Vance, 2006
The innovation: The Society for Human Resource Management becomes the first professional society to enter the burgeoning discussion about employee engagement.
The idea proposed: After countless theories, frameworks, and dissertations from the academic world, this paper marks the first time a professional society has created a guide for building workplace engagement. SHRM’s recommendations officially graduate employee engagement into the realm of corporate best practices.
5. Learning Drives Engagement: Czarnowsky, 2008 (link)
The innovation: Proving the link between workplace learning and employee engagement.
The idea proposed: The study, commissioned by the American Society for Training and Development, uses an research-driven framework to establish that “both the quality and quantity of learning opportunities affect employee engagement to a very large extent.” Other drivers of employee engagement include creating “meaningful work” and “a positive employee experience.”
Employee engagement has fascinated management thinkers these past 25 years because it’s revolutionized the way organizations think about the employee experience. Before Kahn’s paper came along, management psychology had a difficult time characterizing the positive dimensions of employees’ work lives, so research tended to study only the negatives.
Engagement theory changed that. It said, forget focusing on why employees check out of their work. Forget trying to come up with complex models of monetary compensation the way Wall Street does. None of that is as powerful as understanding how to positively invest people in their work. Nothing grows a business or its culture more than creating a domain in which empowered employees are motivated to do their best work. Thanks to the innovation of Kahn and the thinkers who followed him, businesses have heard this message. Now, to a greater and greater degree, they’re seeing those benefits for themselves.