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What is Employee Engagement? [Definition]

/ 2.17.18

If you’re new to the world of business, What-is-Employee-Engagementyou may find yourself stumped by a phrase popping up at every turn: employee engagement. The concept of employee engagement is essential to a successful workplace, so chances are, you’ll be hearing it a lot more. You've heard it as you step into strategic meetings, discuss performance goals, and take a company-wide survey, but what is employee engagement? Take some time to learn exactly what employee engagement is (and isn’t), why it matters, and how to increase employee engagement.


(Psst…want just the short answer? Read this instead!)


What is Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement is the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their places of work. Employee engagement is NOT the same thing as happiness, satisfaction, or well-being.


Employee Engagement is not…

Employee engagement is not happiness. Simple happiness — laughing with coworkers over lunch, enjoying the holiday party — says nothing about how invested employees are in the company or how hard they’re working on behalf of the organization’s mission. Happiness is a short-term, rapidly changing measurement.


Employee engagement is not satisfaction. Employee satisfaction measures a minimum level, while engagement tries to get everyone to achieve greater. Though satisfaction is generally enough to retain employees, it’s often not enough to ensure productivity.


Employee engagement is not well-being. Well-being looks at every area of an employee’s life (both inside and outside the office) to measure how well an individual copes with stress, works productively, makes community contributions, and fulfills his or her potential.


Why does employee engagement matter?

Employee engagement affects just about every important element of an organization – profitability, revenues, client experience, employee turnover, talent acquisition, brand presence, market share, workplace safety – the list goes on and on. Employees who are connected to their organization work harder, stay longer, and motivate others to do the same.


How is employee engagement measured?

Almost all organizations use some type of survey to measure and model employee engagement, but their methods vary. 


Traditional Models

The original models employee engagement use variations on a single theme: “say, stay, strive.” In other words, they look at how likely employees are to speak highly of their employer, how long employees plan to stay at the organization, and how likely employees are to go the extra mile for their organization.


E9: The Modern Model of Employee Engagement

As the employee engagement field evolved, it became clear that older surveys and models were inaccurate at worst and cursory at best.  Using data from over 8,000 organizations and a team of dedicated industrial and organizational psychologists, Quantum Workplace developed a new model that mirrored the developments in the study of employee engagement: the e9 Engagement Model.  The e9 Model looks at nine engagement outcomes, each a measurement of engagement at a different structural level. 


The e9 survey includes two types of items:


1. Engagement Outcomes

These nine items measure the strength of employee engagement. You cannot take a single, direct action to influence an engagement outcome, as multiple cultural diagnostics can impact one engagement outcome.


2. Cultural Diagnostics

Cultural diagnostics evaluate the actual activities happening in the office, such as leadership, professional development, support, and more.  Multiple cultural diagnostics influence an individual engagement outcome.

For example…

You cannot directly impact if employees recommend your organization,

          -Engagement Outcome: I recommend this organization as a great place to work.

…but you can provide employee development, which may then increase your employees’ likeliness to speak highly of where they work.

          -Cultural Diagnostic: My organization provides employee development opportunities.


How can you improve employee engagement?

For the past 20 years, organizations have been trying to improve employee engagement – and they have failed. Consistently, even the BEST places to work have employee engagement levels of no more than 69% - and again, those are the best workplaces in the nation. How can 20 years of study, employee rewards, leadership trainings, and organizational workshops not improve employee engagement at all? Because organizations have been missing the key to employee engagement: the manager.


The manager is important because he or she is the most intimate and consistent interaction employees have with the organization. Managers, therefore, have a huge ability to impact employee engagement. They are responsible for creating the team culture, conducting development conversations and activities, advocating for their team to higher leadership, and making sure employees are secure with the appropriate pay and benefits. Managers can make employees love their jobs or dread coming to work. We've all heard it before: People don't leave organizations, they leave managers.


Once you understand that engagement can only be improved in the context of a local, manager-driven workplace, what steps should your organization and managers take? Improving employee engagement can be broken down into three phases: listen, focus, and transform. First, organizations and managers need to take the time to listen to employees – what they want, what obstacles exist, etc. – through avenues like surveys, one-on-one meetings, and feedback platforms. Then, organizations and managers should distill and prioritize the wide variety of comments and issues they’re sure to receive. Lastly, managers will decide what work needs to be done with the help and support of the larger organization. Improving engagement is a process of continuous, incremental improvement.


History of Employee Engagement

Early 1800s – The Industrial Revolution moves great numbers of people off farms and into factories.  The concept of a manager first enters collective thought.


1911 – Frederick W. Taylor publishes “The Principles of Scientific Management,” establishing the importance of effective management by linking management to increased productivity.  The study of management is born.


1924-32 – Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger’s Hawthorne Studies transform management theory.  Instead of focusing on an individual and his or her innate abilities, Mayo and Roethlisberger focus on social context. The Hawthorne Studies show than an employee’s surroundings influence how he or she performs.


1980s – As manufacturing and production jobs are automated or sent overseas, service companies take their place. “Employees are your greatest asset” becomes “employees are your only asset.” The idea of a lifelong employer dies, pension programs are slashed, and employee retention comes to the forefront of management’s mind.


1990 – The Academy of Management Journal publishes William A. Kahn’s “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work,” considered by many to be the cornerstone of employee engagement. Kahn examines the extent to which people are able to express themselves in their workplace, leading to “attachment.”


1999New York Times’ bestseller First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman coins the term “employee engagement.”  The book summarizes Gallup survey results on employee workplace perceptions.  Gallup would go on to refine and develop their Q12 survey, the first widely known engagement survey.


Late 1990s, early 2000s – The positive psychology movement gains traction.  Positive psychology examines the optimal human functioning and “aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals, organizations, and communities to thrive.”


2001“Job Burnout,” by Christina Maslach, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Michael P. Leiter proposes employee engagement as a solution to job burnout. This application to the working world creates more interest in further employee engagement research.


2006 – The Society for Human Resource Management enters the employee engagement realm by publishing their “Employee Engagement and Commitment” guide.  This is the first nonacademic organization to establish best practices surrounding employee engagement.  SHRM takes engagement from the classroom to the boardroom.



Now that you know what employee engagement is and why it’s important, I bet you’re dying to take action. After you’ve listened to employees and focused their thoughts, you can start implementing ideas. Download the most comprehensive list of employee engagement ideas, below!


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