APA Center for Organizational Excellence: Good Company

Resources for Employers

Good Company Blog

Dr. Matt Grawitch: September 2009 Archives


Last year, I posted a blog entry called “Employee engagement is what you make of it” on this site. I argued that, at a broad level, engagement is the experience of being energized and focused at work, but that engagement is one of those constructs or experiences that is organizational-dependent. The deeper meaning and experience of engagement in one organization is not necessarily the same as in another organization, largely because work experience and work-appropriate behaviors tend to differ from one organization to another.

Lots of popular press articles hold up companies – such as Best Buy, JC Penney, and Campbell Soup – as employee engagement models. For example, BusinessWeek recently did a piece on engagement focusing on all three firms. These companies have figured out what engagement means to them and how to cultivate it.

I believe that employee engagement can be a very useful leverage point for organizations (note that I said can be). However, as Wally Bock recently pointed out, employee engagement has the potential to become the greatest management fad ever, meaning that at some point it will lose favor among actual practitioners. He points to the ambiguity of the concept, the fact that people seldom are able to define the concept (except that they “know it when they see it”), and that many of the conceptualizations of engagement have little or nothing to do with actual performance.

To Wally’s observations, I’d also like to add that many of the engagement measures that consulting companies throw out there are nothing but collections of items that focus on motivation, commitment, and job satisfaction. They simply re-package them and call them engagement.

Does that mean engagement is really nothing but a management fad? I don’t think that is the case at all. Instead, more often than not, I think this may be a case of allowing irrelevant others (consultants, survey research firms, the media) to tell us what it means to be an engaged employee in our own organizations.

Rather than letting external folks tell senior leadership what it means to be engaged, senior leadership should be telling consultants what it means to be engaged in their organization. So, senior leaders and human resource folks, here are some questions to help get you started:

  1. What does it mean to be engaged in the work that is performed in my organization?
  2. When employees are truly engaged in their work, what types of experiences are they likely to have at work?
  3. When employees are truly engaged in their work, what types of behaviors will they display?
  4. How do these work experiences (#2) and behaviors (#3) result in greater performance for the employee and the organization?
  5. What kinds of initiatives can we develop to produce engagement experiences?
  6. What are characteristics of the organization that might influence the success or failure of our engagement initiatives?

Answering these six questions for your organization can help you to identify an “engagement” that works for your organization. Taking the time to truly reflect on and answer these questions will permit your organization to (1) develop a definition of engagement and (2) measure engagement in a way that is meaningful for your organization.

If you let the consultants, the research firms, and the media tell you what it means to be engaged in your organization, then you will, as Wally Bock argues, end up thinking that engagement is a “cure all” that will produce “magical results.” And for that, you may spend thousands of dollars (or more) for something that produces less than cost-effective results. On the other hand, if you take the time to focus on your own organizational definition of engagement, with a real emphasis on the actual potential link to relevant outcomes, you may end up with a leverage point for improving your organization.