What is employee engagement and why is it important?

Engagement is described in HR literature as: the enthusiasm that employees feel with regards to their work (1). Engagement is the degree to which employees are passionate about their work and devote themselves to their work. Engaged employees go the extra mile to contribute to the success of your organisation. In short, engagement means that employees work and express themselves in a physical, cognitive and emotional manner (2).

What is employee engagement and why is it important?
en-gage-ment (n.)
1 the act of engaging or condition of being engaged
2 a promise, obligation or other condition that binds

An important HR variable

Engagement is an important HR variable for the majority of organisations. It helps enable your organisation to deliver a superior performance and to gain a competitive advantage. Engaged employees make additional effort, learn more, and faster, and are more creative. In addition, they are your organisation's ambassadors. Furthermore, engagement is a good predictor of customer satisfaction, personnel retention, productivity and profitability.3, 4 ,5

Engagement takes committed and motivated employees to the next level.6 Engaged employees concentrate on the goals of your organisation and on the results that you as an organisation expect from them. They have the feeling that they really can contribute to the success of your organisation and that all their abilities are being utilised.

Global Employee Engagement Index

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A subtle difference

At Effectory, we’re often asked to explain the difference between engagement and commitment. Engagement is an intrinsic attitude that denotes an employee’s enthusiasm for his or her job. Commitment, on the other hand, denotes an employee’s enthusiasm for the company he or she works for.

What happens when employees are neither engaged nor committed?

To provide insight into the level of employee commitment and engagement within an organisation, we categorise employees into four types: engaged and committed, engaged, committed and neither engaged nor committed. The four types differ in the following way:

  • Engaged and committed employees are both engaged in their work and committed to the organisation. Employees love their work and the company they work for.
  • Engaged employees are engaged in their work, but not committed to the organisation.
  • Committed employees are committed to the organisation, but not engaged in their work.
  • Employees that are neither engaged nor committed are neither engaged in their work, nor committed to the organisation.

We believe that the best case scenario is when an employee is engaged in the job and committed to the organisation. If an employee is only engaged, there is the distinct risk that they are not committed to the organisation, and vice versa.

The cart as a metaphor for engagement

Our experience has taught us that  engagement can sometimes be challenging. We have found that the following metaphor can often help: 

Imagine that your organisation is a cart, and that as a cart, it has to move forward to get to its destination. In and around the cart sit your employees, and generally speaking we can split the employees into three broad categories: engaged and committed, engaged or committed and neither engaged nor committed.

Europe's top 5 countries for engagement and commitment

At the front of the cart are the engaged and committed employees. They are the people in your organisation that walk in front of the cart, and help pull the cart along its journey. Slightly further back are the engaged or committed employees, who sit in the cart and look forward. At the other end of the cart are the employees that are neither engaged nor committed. The majority of these employees are looking the other way, ignoring the direction of the cart. Some are however, hanging off the back, disrupting the journey and making it more difficult.

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Front runners

It’s sometimes easy to assume that managers are the employees walking in front of the cart, pulling it along. However, it’s important to realise that engagement and commitment occurs at every level within the organisation, and any employee, whether manager or not, can love his/her job and company, and thus pull the cart forwards.

What’s most important for your organisation is that the overall balance of the cart favours those towards the front end. In addition to those engaged and committed employees, the employees that are engaged or committed also play a vital role in helping the cart move forward and certainly contribute to organisations. It’s vital for organisations that the cart keeps moving forward, and that those employees at the back are not causing the cart to come to a standstill. 

Dangers 

The dangers to your engaged and committed employees are the hidden obstacles that are encountered along the journey. Engaged and committed employees who are at the front of the cart inevitably encounter bumps along the way, and the danger comes when these bumps become frustrations. For example, excessive bureaucracy and procedures can become obstacles to engaged and committed employees. Perhaps a lack of resources is hindering and limiting the employees at the front of the cart.

In general, obstacles are perfectly normal. The trick is to use the energy of engaged and committed employees to sufficiently clear the obstacle so the cart can keep moving. If it becomes clear that the task of moving the obstacle is proving too hard for the employee, it is essential that the job is passed onto someone else. When employees are stuck with a frustrating task for too long, there runs the risk that they can go from leading the cart along its journey, to disrupting the journey.

The ideal situation

For organisations, the ideal arises when there are enough engaged and committed employees pulling the cart forward, and enough engaged or committed employees sit in the cart. Both the engaged or committed, and engaged and committed employees can offer each other support, and interchange positions. In a perfect scenario there would be no employees blocking the progress of the cart. The reality is however often different, but at the very least, organisations should ensure that the balance of employees favours the front of the cart.

The 4 influencers of engagement and commitment

Remain alert to any bumps in your journey, or possible obstacles for your employees. One of the most important things is to ensure that the bumps do not become immovable frustrations. Such frustrations are not only potentially bad for your engaged and committed employees, but also for your organisational journey.

References:

  1. Roberts, D.R. and Davenport, T.O. (2002) Job Engagement: Why it's Important and how to Improve it. Employment Relations Today, 21-29 
  2. Kahn, W.A. (1990) Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 33, 692-724
  3. Roberts, D.R. and Davenport, T.O. (2002) Job Engagement: Why it's Important and how to Improve it. Employment Relations Today, 21-29
  4. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L. and Hayes, T.L. (2002) Business-Unit-Level Relationship between Employee Satisfaction, Engagement, and Business Outcomes: A meta-analysis.Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 87, 268-279
  5. Frank, F.D., Finnegan, R.P. and Taylor, C.R. (2004) The Race for Talent: Retaining and Engaging Workers in the 21st Century. HR Human Resource Planning, Vol. 27, 12-25
  6. Aktouf, O. (1992) Management and Theories of Organizations in the 1990s: Toward a Critical Radical Humanism. Academy of Management Review, Vol. 17, 407-43

Free Checklist: Successfully gather feedback from your employees

The step-by-step guide to creating your employee engagement survey. Includes a checklist of everything you need for successfully gathering and using feedback.

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