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Engaging in Healthy Debate

Over Employee Engagement

by J. Peter Leeds and Doug Nierle

Since first being proposed by William Kahn in 1990, the concept of Despite a few who
employee engagement has emerged as a dominant workplace measurement
theme in both public- and private-sector organizations. say its not worth the
Many efforts have linked increased levels of employee engagement to effort, the value of
improved organizational outcomes. A 2008 report by the U.S. Merit Systems
engagement lies in its
Protection Board (MSPB) defined employee engagement as a heightened con-
nection between employees and their work, their organization, or the people capacity to guide leaders
they work for or with. in diagnosing and
The importance of this connection lies in the fact that MSPB found a sig-
nificant relationship between increased levels of employee engagement in fed-
ameliorating identified
eral agencies and improved agency outcomes. Specifically, in agencies where workplace difficulties.
more employees were engaged, better program results were produced, employ-
ees used less sick leave, fewer employees filed equal employment opportunity
complaints, and there were fewer cases of work-related injury or illness.
The importance of employee engagement as a measure of organizational
effectiveness continues to grow in both the private and public sectors. Accord-
ing to a 2013 Corporate Leadership Council study, improving the engagement
of employees has become the goal of more than 90 percent of medium- to


large-sized organizations that are either conducting or organizations spend about $720 million annually, includ-
planning to conduct engagement surveys. ing both outsourced and internally developed programs,
In addition, both Congress and the administration to improve their employees engagement.
recently have focused on employee engagement in the It must be difficult for organizations to gauge how
hope of helping federal agencies produce better results. much they spend on their engagement efforts. Planning
Congress has requested that the Government Account- and administering employee surveys are discrete efforts
ability Office study the steps that the federal government and those costs are easy to track. However, the cost to
can take to improve employee engagement levels. In its create a culture where high levels of engagement can
fiscal year 2015 budget, the administration included a flourish may be impossible to determine.
focus on improving employee engagement through its Virtually every human resources processfrom
plan to provide agencies with actionable information to finding employees who are the right fit for an organi-
target areas where improvement is needed. zations jobs and culture to designing challenging jobs
However, a flurry of recent articles have challenged and appropriate training and rewards programsis
the utility of employee engagement, penning headlines important to nurturing an engaged workforce. Effective
such as (Almost) Everything We Think About Employee supervision is important throughout all phases of the
Engagement is Wrong (Forbes); Its Time to Rethink performance management cycle, and the cost of providing
the Employee Engagement Issue (Forbes); $720 Million fertile ground for an employees engagement to grow may
Spent on Engagement and This is All We Get? (Weekly be close to the total operating budget of an organization.
Wrap); Employee Engagement Surveys: Useless or Very Engagement should not be approached as a separate
Useless? (Macleans Magazine); and Why Increasing management program or laid on top of existing mana-
Employee Engagement Is a Waste of Time (Tye Globe gerial or human resources processesit should be a
and Mail). Serious academic challenges to the concept of systemic part of an employees daily workday. If an orga-
employee engagement also emerged in a 2014 report from nization can easily determine what it spends on engage-
the School of Management at the University of Bath. mentit is doing it wrong.
It may be time to restate and offer a response to some
of these challenges and place employee engagement in a There Is No Single Accepted
space where it may comfortably reside as a relevant and Definition of Employee Engagement
valuable workplace measurement concept. Some have said that engagement is not diagnostically use-
The criticisms leveled against engagement fall into ful because employee attitudes cant be reduced to a single
five broad categories: meaningful number, even if practitioners could agree on a
Improving engagement costs too much with too little unified definition. In response, many concepts have varied
benefit. definitions while still being useful.
There is no single accepted definition of employee Concepts such as intelligence, satisfaction, and
engagement. commitment have been defined in many ways by many
Increased employee engagement does not cause bet- researchers. However, when measures of the same concept
ter organizational performance. are co-administered, even though they may have different
Engagement surveys may not result in meaningful definitions, the resulting data typically overlap substan-
organizational improvement efforts. tially, indicating that they share common conceptual space.
The very notion of employee engagement assumes In short, a single definition is not an essential char-
that it is leaderships job to reach out and engage acteristic of a useful attitude measure. Rather it is up to
employees. the organization to adopt a definition that maintains the
spirit of the engagement concept but that also meets the
Improving Engagement Costs unique measurement needs of that organization.
Too Much With Too Little Benefit It also has been argued that engagement measures offer
Some observers question whether the amount organiza- nothing new or different above and beyond effort, satisfac-
tions spend trying to improve the engagement of their tion, and commitment. If true, then the measure is point-
employees can be justified by any benefits that might less and redundant, and some could argue that definitions
result. Research by Bersin & Associates shows that of engagement overlap considerably with definitions of

other concepts. The legitimacy of this criticism varies by the When workplace disruptions and organizational
engagement definition to which one is referring. traumas occur, leadership requires a measure that will
Regardless of how many other concepts it may touch gauge the effects on the most important aspects of
on or overlap with, engagement offers a conceptual space workplace sentimentcontinued work motivation and
where the rubber meets the road and denotes employees passion for the work. Where these attitudes are dimin-
who are self-driven and invested in their work. ished, leadership needs to know so it can take appropri-
Considering the relatively simple definition of ate action.
engagement as job-involved desire to exert effort, many Establishing causal linkages between engagement
other definitions may capture this theme. The Center and performance is a desirable goal of social scientists. At
for Advanced Human Resources Studies examined present the strongest evidence suggests only a correlation.
While the correlation
between performance and
Organizations that measure employee engagement must show engagement does not nec-
essarily mean that engage-
employees exactly how the results of engagement surveys ment causes performance, all
are incorporated into leaderships decision making and how effects are in fact correlated
with their causes. Thus,
attitudes expressed by employees are used to manage the engagement measures have
workplace. established this pre-request
association. Subsequent
research may scientifically
establish the causal link but
in the meantime, measuring
engagement definitions and identified a handful of engagement involves asking employees directly about their
themes, including commitment, discretionary effort, levels of motivation and passion for their work.
energy, involvement, passion, absorption, and perfor-
mance drive. The common engagement theme is readily Engagement Surveys May Not Result
apparent, and rather than fretting about crafting a pre- in Organizational Improvements
cise, universally accepted definition, organizations may Organizational employee engagement surveys often cre-
adopt one of the many definitions that exist according to ate expectations among employees that organizational
their own measurement needs. improvement is forthcoming. Where this is not the case,
employees may believe that the money spent in measuring
Increased Employee engagement may be better spent on things that directly
Engagement Does Not Cause affect employees, such as recognition, training and devel-
Better Organizational Performance opment, and other benefits.
There are many studies that show only a correlation Organizations that measure employee engagement
not causationbetween employee engagement and must show employees exactly how the results of engage-
organization performance. It may be that more effec- ment surveys are incorporated into leaderships decision
tive organizations attract and retain better-performing making and how attitudes expressed by employees are
employees. Thus organization reputation and effective- used to manage the workplace. Even if grand solutions in
ness is the driver of engagement rather than engagement response to low engagement are not on the table, agen-
driving organizational effectiveness. cies must communicate how the results figure into the
As any statistician knows, correlation is not cau- business processthat they are taken seriously and may
sation. The utility of the engagement concept is not prompt action.
degraded by this truism. The utility of engagement lies Measures of engagement allow leadership to ask
in its sensitivity to variation in workplace morale and its employees anonymously and earnestly, How are we
capacity to guide leadership in diagnosing and ameliorat- and you doing? Such surveys are better thought of as
ing identified workplace difficulties. a performance appraisal of the organization from the


My Supervisor Has Good Management Skills
Engaged Employees Disengaged Employees
Disagree, 4% Neither, 9%
Neither, 22%

Agree, 14%

Agree, 87% Disagree, 64%

Effective supervision is vitally important for engagement to flourish. In a 2005 survey of more than 36,000 federal employees, 87 percent of en-
gaged employees agreed that their supervisors had good management skills, while only 14 percent of disengaged employees agreed.
Source: The Power of Federal Employee Engagement, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 2008.

perspective of the employee, and leaders are obliged to and desires, employees actively developing skills that are
consider such appraisals in changing their own behavior. valued by both the employee and the organization, and
Engagement surveys are sensors and probes of the organizational leaders learning what engages different
general temperament of the employees and climate of the employees so that work opportunities and rewards can be
workplace in a snapshot of time. No single measure of more effectively administered.
engagement can inquire about all the possible workplace The challenges raised by these discussions are valu-
challenges. Surveys provide only a general indicator of able in building an engagement measurement model that
employee attitudes. works for organizations. Such discussions play an impor-
Where results indicate red flags, subsequent inter- tant role in challenging the utility of employee engage-
views, focus groups, or follow-up surveys should be con- ment and forcing leaders and researchers to support their
ducted to better isolate the causes of disengagement. choice of measures and the way they are used.
Organizations may wish to proactively conduct employee There is compelling reason to continue measuring
interviews and focus groups prior to fielding engagement and acting on engagement indicators. Although more
surveys to develop and incorporate questions that touch discussion is no doubt forthcoming, by incorporating
on any issues discovered. This not only communicates to what we have learned from the engagement debate, orga-
employees that leadership is aware of specific issues, but nizations may capitalize on the advantages that applied
also allows for more tailored solutions when results show engagement measurement affords.
consistent themes and patterns.
J. Peter Leeds is a senior research psychologist and Doug Nierle is a senior
Leaderships Job: Reach research analyst with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Boards Office of
Out and Engage Employees Policy and Evaluation (OPE). OPE assesses the soundness of federal merit
Leadership can only do so much to empower employees, employment systems and offers recommendations for their improvement.
configure desirable job characteristics, remove disengaging The authors may be contacted at and doug.nierle@
obstacles, and connect workplace rewards to performance. The views expressed here are their own.
Engagement is a two-way street and employees have
an obligation to seek out and actively help to build work
situations that they find intrinsically engaging. This may For more information
involve, where practicable, employees participating in OPE study reports about employee engagement and other topics
arranging the workspace and tasks to fit employees needs are available at

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