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Employee Engagement Theory - The Different Approaches


 — January 11th, 2019

Employee Engagement Theory - The Different Approaches

It’s not possible to speak about Employee Engagement Theory without doffing your cap to the organizational psychologist William Kahn. He is widely recognized for his seminal work ‘Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work’ which is considered the spark which lit a fire under this approach.

His research was published in 1990 and, based on two workplace studies, he evolved a framework for recognizing how an organization fosters... or hinders... engagement.

This was Kahn’s particular interest. What makes engagement happen and what factors prevent it from taking place?

His hands-on study of two different workplace environments led to a definition of engagement which he characterized as an employee’s ability to harness their “full self” at work.

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It was Kahn’s view that this “full self” comes about when three psychological conditions are in play:

Meaningfulness – This focuses on whether the employee perceives their role/task as meaningful, both to the organization and within the context of wider society, to justify their “full self” being deployed.

Safety – Do staff feel the workplace provides sufficient safety from any negative consequences such that they are prepared to bring their “full self” to the role?

Availability – Does the employee feel sufficiently physically and mentally able to deploy their “full self” to the task?

Kahn’s approach tends towards a human-centered focus on Employee Engagement. However, other researchers have focussed their attention far more on the role of the organization in achieving such engagement.

Individual Vs Organisational approaches

This has led to challenges for researchers in the field as they constantly seek to define and redefine what is meant by ‘Employee Engagement’. In practice, this has developed a broad range of approaches, from research into how organizational structure and investment can affect measures of employee engagement in the workplace, to very human-centered studies looking at the psychological makeup of an employee in their workplace and what external factors help them achieve Kahn’s “full self”.

Thus, it’s fair to characterize Employee Engagement Theory as a set of definitions which are still very much in flux and open to interpretation depending on where researchers are coming from. Structural research naturally seeks to find frameworks which will foster staff engagement en masse, whereas the psychologist starts by looking at how an employee’s mental disposition will affect their level of workplace engagement.

Workplace Engagement Drivers

So, bearing Kahn’s approach in mind, let's look at the key drivers from an organizational perspective:

  • Staff perceptions of job importance
  • The clarity of an employee’s job expectations
  • Career opportunities
  • Feedback frequency and quality with management
  • The dynamics of relationships with co-workers, line managers and staff from various levels
  • How employees view the espoused ethos and values of the organization
  • The effectiveness of internal communication amongst staff

A little bit of this, a bit more of that...

As a taster of where Employee Engagement Theory is today, it’s clear that there is still plenty of opportunities to build on the work of researchers from a wide range of disciplines.

What Human Resources can take from this is a recognition that, in looking at strategies for how to maximize engagement of staff, both the individual motivations at the psychological level, as well as effective organizational support structures are needed to form the basis of a coherent and holistic approach.

Employee Engagement theory is not one (at least yet) universal equation. Rather, it’s a combination of interdisciplinary expertise and research which meets at the interface between the individual’s motivational needs and wants, and the structures business can implement to achieve wider corporate objectives.

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