What is Employee Engagement? [Definition]

What is Employee Engagement DefinitionAs an HR leader, you’re served a ton of information about how you can improve your engagement initiatives. And you’ve probably heard several different employee engagement definitions.

Employee engagement is being discussed during strategic meetings, performance conversations, and in company-wide surveys.

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It impacts nearly every aspect of your organization, so it’s important to understand. But what is employee engagement?

Keep reading to find out how we define employee engagement including what it is, what it isn’t, why it matters, and how you can improve it.

Employee Engagement Definition

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


Employee engagement is NOT...


Employee 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 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 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. Employees who are connected to their organization work harder, stay longer, and impact employee and business outcomes including:

  • Increased productivity
  • Increased profitability and revenue
  • Better customer service
  • Lower employee turnover
  • Better recruitment and talent acquisition
  • Greater brand presence and reputation
  • Increased market share and stock price
  • Increased workplace safety


How do I measure employee engagement?


Not all organizations have initiatives related to employee engagement, but most use some sort of tool to measure and model employee behaviors and opinions. Whether more traditional or more modern, a variety of methods are available.


Traditional Models of Employee Engagement

The original models of employee engagement use variations on a single theme: say, stay, and strive.

  • Say: How likely employees are to speak highly of their employer
  • Stay: How long employees plan to stay at the organization
  • Strive: How likely employees are to go the extra mile for their organization


Modern Models of Employee Engagement

As the employee engagement field evolved, it became clear that older models were inaccurate, inconsistent, and random. Research by Deloitte Insights found that to improve employee engagement, work must become irresistible. Josh Bersin says,

"Companies need tools and methods that measure and capture employee feedback and sentiment on a real-time, local basis so they can continuously adjust management practices and the work environment at a local level."


e9: The Modern Model of Employee Engagement

Using data from more than 8,000 organizations and a team of dedicated industrial and organizational psychologists, Quantum Workplace developed a new model for employee engagement: the e9 Model.

This model represents nine engagement outcomes that should be measured in an engagement survey. These 9 survey questions measure the strength of employee engagement at 3 different structural levels:

  • Work engagement: I find my work engaging.
  • Team engagement: My immediate coworkers are committed to this organization’s overall goals.
  • Organization engagement: I recommend my organization as a great place to work.

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. Impact Questions

Impact questions evaluate the actual activities happening in the office, such as leadership, professional development, support, and more. Multiple impact questions influence an individual engagement outcome.

You can’t directly impact if employees will recommend your organization to their peers. But you can provide development opportunities which may increase the likelihood of a recommendation from your employees. When each of these levels is engaged and are working together, you will have a more engaged organization overall.


The evolution of employee engagement


At the turn of the 16th century, human beings who provided a service for another entity became known as employees. Since then, the role of employees and their engagement within their organizations has evolved.


Early 1800s

The Industrial Revolution moves large numbers of people off farms and into factories. The concept of a manager first enters collective thought.



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.


1920 to 1930s

Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger’s Hawthorne Studies transform management theory. Instead of focusing on an individual’s innate abilities, the Hawthorne Studies focus on social context; showing that an employee’s surroundings influence performance.



As manufacturing and production jobs are automated or sent overseas, service companies grow. 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 takes the stage.



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.

New 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.



The positive psychology movement gains traction. Positive psychology examines optimal human functioning and discovers what makes individuals, organizations, and communities thrive.

Job Burnout, by Christina Maslach, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Michael P. Leiter proposes employee engagement as a solution to job burnout. This solution sparks interest in further employee engagement research.

The Society for Human Resource Management enters the employee engagement realm by publishing their Employee Engagement and Commitment guide. SHRM takes engagement from the classroom to the boardroom as the first non-academic organization to establish best practices surrounding employee engagement.



Following one of the largest studies on employee engagement, the UK institutionalizes the concept of employee engagement by starting the Engage for Success initiative.

Google’s People Innovation team develops the gDNA study. This century-long study aims to use science and survey results to better understand their work.



Deloitte predicts that for organizations to improve employee engagement, they will need to shift from an employee experience to a more human experience; by connecting personal work to organizational purpose from the bottom-up.


How can I improve employee engagement?


Organizations have been trying to improve employee engagement for decades. Yet, not even the best places to work are engaging more than 70% of their employees. Despite years of research, leadership training, and organizational workshops, employee engagement has all but flat-lined. But why? Organizations are missing a key ingredient to employee success: managers.


The impact of managers on employee engagement

Managers have the most intimate and consistent relationship with individuals across organizations. As a result, they have a huge ability to impact employee engagement. Managers are responsible for:

  • Creating the team culture
  • Conducting development conversations and activities
  • Advocating for their team to higher leadership
  • 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 heard it before: people don't leave organizations, they leave managers. Engagement can only be improved in the context of a local, manager-driven workplace. So how do you make a difference?


Here are three phases managers and organizations can take to improve employee engagement.


1. Listen to your employees.

Organizations and managers need to take the time to actively listen and gather feedback from their employees. Ask them what they want to achieve, what obstacles are in their way, and what you can do to help. Utilize pulse surveys, one-on-one meetings, and feedback tools to help scale your initiatives and reach every individual on a personal level.


2. Focus on specifics.

Humans are complex creatures with feelings, facts, and experiences. You’ve got a lot of data on your hands so focusing on what matters to your organization is important. Organizations and managers should distill and prioritize the wide variety of comments and issues they’re sure to receive to make meaningful change.


3. Transform your approach.

Through intimate employee relationships, managers are responsible for deciding what work needs to be done with the help and support of leadership, HR and the organization as a whole. Improving engagement is a process of continuous, incremental improvement that involves stakeholders at every level.


There’s no secret sauce when it comes to improving employee engagement, but there are tools that can help. Finding modern tools that focus on employee success is the best way to evolve your strategy and foster a talent-centric culture for the future.



Now that you know what employee engagement is, why it’s important, and how you can make a difference – it’s time to get to work. Download our ebook, A New Era of Employee Engagement to move the needle on your employee engagement initiatives.

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