It seems academics can’t agree what employee engagement actually means – so is there still a point in measuring it? Jonny Gifford and Dilys Robinson share their thoughts
Over the last decade, employee engagement has cemented its place in people management research and practice. In particular, the government commissioned MacLeod Report in 2009 convinced many that it is a vital ingredient for organisational performance. Building on this, the Engage for Success movement has generated momentum to promote engagement-focused activity and further our understanding of how it works.
Yet debates still rumble on about what employee engagement actually is and why we should be concerned with it. This is highlighted in acollection of thought pieces by leading academics and practitioners published this month by Engage for Success, CIPD and the Institute for Employment Studies.
Indeed, one of the contributors, Rob Briner, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Bath, sees this lack of agreement about what employee engagement is as a fairly terminal flaw. If we can’t agree what we’re talking about, or measuring, what is the value of the concept?
What is engagement?
Briner distinguishes employee engagement from the ‘work engagement’ scale developed by Wilmar Schaufeli and colleagues at Utrecht University. The Utrecht scale has a specific focus on vigour, dedication and absorption and sees engagement as the antithesis of burnout.
On the other hand, most measures of employee engagement used within organisations – and there are many – draw together a wider range of attributes, such as motivation, recognition and one’s sense of value, job fit and relationships at work. Some, like Briner, criticise such measures as unhelpful potpourri that cloud focus.
And yet, employee engagement is generally thought of as a conglomeration. It brings together traditionally distinct areas: employee-focused concepts of satisfaction, motivation and quality of working life; and more organisation-focused aspects of how employees understand business context and show commitment to strategy and values.
In short, employee engagement seeks the good of the individual and the good of the organisation, in tandem. It is not enough to love your job and be willing to go the extra mile. You need to be going the extra mile in the right direction.
That this multiple focus is reflected in measurements is no surprise, but it is easy to see how it can cause confusion. Composite measures can be useful to track overall levels of engagement over time or identify ‘hot spots’ of disengagement in the organisation. But surveys can give a false sense of accuracy. For example, a finding that 30% of one’s workforce is “engaged” raises more questions than answers. Engaged with what, exactly? What are the cut-off points and how engaged is “engaged”?
Why are they engaged?
Certainly, we should be ready to unpack such composite measures. If your organisation sees a rise in its engagement metric, for example, it is not enough to consider which groups of employees are most responsible for this. To be of genuine use to the organisation, you must also be able to talk about particular aspects that have driven the increase and furthermore, consider how important these aspects are for performance.
Another contributor to the thought pieces is Paul Sparrow, Professor of International HRM at Lancaster University. Sparrow challenges us to grapple with these harder questions, recognising that the link between engagement and performance is complex and employees need to engage with different things in different contexts. For example, he writes, the attitudes and behaviour required to support “a strategic focus on innovation” are very different from those needed “if lean management is a central strategic drive.”
But as Sparrow also argues, organisations should pursue engagement whether it is seen to improve bottom line performance or not. While it should indeed be a win-win scenario for employees and the business, enriching working lives is a worthy aim in its own right and focusing too much on financial return may alienate employees and lead to cynicism.
The philosophy behind employee engagement is far more compelling. Harking back to Douglas MacGregor’s Theory Y view of management, it pitches against Theory X practices that put productivity and the measurement of inputs and outputs above all else. Employees matter as individuals and they need to be met where they are, treated respectfully, communicated with openly, done ‘with’ not ‘to’. It is, as an Engage for Success video puts it, about being treated as a human being, not a human ‘resource’.
The idea of employee engagement has taken root and had an undeniable impact in advancing progressive people management practices. Much engagement research and activity rightly focuses on in-depth conversations rather than metrics – it is cultural and needs to be understood qualitatively. But measurement is important too and, for many using engagement metrics, an outstanding challenge lies in making them not only meaningful, but relevant and useful to specific business contexts.
Jonny Gifford is Research Adviser at CIPD and Dilys Robinson is a Principal Research Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies