Employee engagement: What exactly is it?

Mar 08 2007 by Patricia Soldati Print This Article

For several years now, 'employee engagement' has been a hot topic in corporate circles. It's a buzz phrase that has captured the attention of workplace observers and HR managers, as well as the executive suite. And it's a topic that employers and employees alike think they understand, yet can't articulate very easily.

No wonder. It turns out that all that employee engagement research undertaken over the past few years has defined the term differently, and as a result, came up with different key drivers and implications.

Enter The Conference Board, a prestigious, non-profit business membership and research organization located in the U.S. This group provides its members — top executives and industry leaders from the most respected corporations in the United States and around the world — with vital business intelligence and forward-looking best practices.

In 2006, The Conference Board published "Employee Engagement, A Review of Current Research and Its Implications". According to this report, twelve major studies on employee engagement had been published over the prior four years by top research firms such as Gallup, Towers Perrin, Blessing White, the Corporate Leadership Council and others.

Each of the studies used different definitions and, collectively, came up with 26 key drivers of engagement. For example, some studies emphasized the underlying cognitive issues, others on the underlying emotional issues.

The Conference Board looked across this mass of data and came up with a blended definition and key themes that crossed all of the studies. They define employee engagement as "a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work".

At least four of the studies agreed on these eight key drivers.

  • Trust and integrity – how well managers communicate and 'walk the talk'.
  • Nature of the job –Is it mentally stimulating day-to-day?
  • Line of sight between employee performance and company performance – Does the employee understand how their work contributes to the company's performance?
  • Career Growth opportunities –Are there future opportunities for growth?
  • Pride about the company – How much self-esteem does the employee feel by being associated with their company?
  • Coworkers/team members – significantly influence one's level of engagement
  • Employee development – Is the company making an effort to develop the employee's skills?
  • Relationship with one's manager – Does the employee value his or her relationship with his or her manager?

Other key findings include the fact that larger companies are more challenged to engage employees than are smaller companies, while employee age drives a clear difference in the importance of certain drivers. For example, employees under age 44 rank "challenging environment/career growth opportunities" much higher than do older employees, who value "recognition and reward for their contributions".

But all studies, all locations and all ages agreed that the direct relationship with one's manager is the strongest of all drivers.

In the final analysis, one wonders whether employee engagement is just another trendy concept, or really a big deal?

According the report, employee engagement is a very big deal. There is clear and mounting evidence that high levels of employee engagement keenly correlates to individual, group and corporate performance in areas such as retention, turnover, productivity, customer service and loyalty.

And this is not just by small margins. While differences varied from study to study, highly engaged employees outperform their disengaged counterparts by a whopping 20 – 28 percentage points!

Finally, there is some evidence that companies are responding to this employee engagement challenge - by flattening their chains of command, providing training for first-line managers and with better internal communications. Changes won't happen overnight, but with such significant upside to the bottom line - they might happen more quickly than you think

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About The Author

Patricia Soldati
Patricia Soldati

Patricia Soldati is a former President & COO of a national finance organization who re-invented her working life in 1998. As a career fulfillment specialist, she helps corporate professionals enhance their working lives – both within the organization – and by leaving it behind.