Some thoughts on the concept of engagement

The concept of “engagement” has become a hot topic in applied psychology over the past two years. Like competency modeling and personality assessment before it, HR practitioners have forced the academic community to pay attention to engagement—it is not something that the academics discovered on their own.

The concept of engagement was first described by Yale organizational psychologist William Kahn. Kahn suggests that engagement occurs when a person’s identity and job role “exist in [a] dynamic…relation in which a person both drives personal energies into role behaviors and displays the self within the role.” Such role expression “fulfills the human spirit” at work. Kahn defines engagement in terms of four components: (1) Cognitive (the role is consistent with a person’s identity); (2) Emotional (the person likes the role); (3) Physical (the person will work at the role); (4) Existential (the role provides personal meaning).

There are two big reasons engagement matters. The first is “philosophical”; the second is financial. Concerning the first reason, Karl Marx was right—working in modern business organizations is inherently alienating; in many organizations, people must surrender their humanity in return for a paycheck. When people are not free to defect from organizations, their participation in it is inherently alienating, and engagement is a powerful and humane way to resolve the problem of alienation.

Second, the data overwhelmingly indicate that when the morale of a business unit is low, absenteeism, turnover, and theft go up, and productivity and customer satisfaction go down. Conversely, when morale is high, absenteeism, turnover, and theft go down, and productivity and customer satisfaction go up. Morale and engagement are pretty much the same, and there are clear financial consequences associated with high and low engagement. Engagement is the “g” factor in organizational life; it is correlated with (predicts) every important business outcome at the individual and the business unit level.

The concept of engagement has four important implications for management practice. First, there is such a thing as good and bad management; good management creates engagement, bad management destroys it. Second, because engagement is a function of how managers treat their staff, there are no cookie cutter solutions; engagement depends on building relationships with the staff, one person at a time. Third, not all managers can or will do this. And fourth, not all staff members are willing to engage with their managers.

Assuming that an organization decides to pay attention to engagement, assessment will be at the core of any implementation. Assessment can identify managers who are good at building engagement, managers who could build engagement but don’t, and managers who have no talent for building engagement. Assessment can also identify employees who are capable of becoming engaged, and employees who are, by virtue of their basic psychology, constitutionally alienated.

— Robert Hogan