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.

Older Comments

No matter the definition of employee engagement, the payback to allowing employees to develop a strong sense of ownership, a feeling that it is their workplace, is huge. Stephen Covey wrote that the difference between essentially poorly motivated and highly motivated employees is about 500% in productivity.

My own experience in four successful turnarounds verifies this difference and indicates that it is within the grasp of every manager should they decide to act appropriately. My definition of same is embodied in the ten question test below.

This is a simple test of 10 questions. Rank yourself (or a manager) on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best or almost always, 1 being the worst or almost never. Add up the points for each question.

If you score close to 100, I would expect that your employees will be over 3 times more productive than if your score was 30 or less. In addition, employees will unleash their full potential creativity and innovation, love to come to work and have very high morale. :)


-provide regular and frequent opportunities for employees to voice complaints, suggestions and questions, provide reasonable and timely responses, and give employees what they say they need to do a better job? (At least weekly?)

-elicit answers/responses from the team and get them to use their brainpower to solve problems?

-listen to employees with 100% attention without distraction, without trying to figure out a response and with the use of follow-up questions to obtain missing details and suggested fixes?

-refrain from giving orders since by their nature they demeaning and disrespectful and destroy innovation and commitment?

-treat members better in terms of humility, respect, timely and high quality responses, forthrightness, trust, admission of error, etc than they are expected to treat customers and each other?

-publicly recognize employees for their contributions and high performance and never take credit him/herself?

-openly provide all company info to employees to the extent they need/desire?

-use values and high standards of them in order to explain why certain actions are better than others?

-use smiles and good humor with subordinates, not frowns or a blank face?

-generate in employees a sense of ownership?

However one achieves ownership or engagement by employees, the payback is HUGE.

Best regards, Ben Simonton Author 'Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed' http://www.bensimonton.com

Ben Simonton

Interesting article.

Regarding the concluding paragraph (organizations are attempting to increase employee engagement by flattening hierarchies): I'm not sure this is a sensible response to the problem.

If all of the studies agree that a key factor in engagement is the employee's relationship with his/her direct line manager, doesn't flattening the hierarchy make this more difficult? Flattening a hierarchy (removing layers of bureaucracy and management) would seem to increase the number of direct reports each manager has. Having more direct reports means a manager has less time for each individual. Less time for each individual means less time to build a personal relationship.

Doesn't this 'fix' potentially go in the wrong direction?

Erik Mazzone www.erikmazzone.com

It's amazing that the HR community is still debating whether or not employee engagement is a 'big deal.'

Employee engagement is NOT a fad. It's the byproduct of our economy's transition from an industrial base to a service and information base. As the American workforce evolved from laborers to knowledge workers--a power shift occurred between employer and employee. Engagement will become the best competitive advantage companies will exert to defend their businesses. Engagement research ought to be performed by every company with more than 10 employees. And the results should be scrutinized with the same vigor as financial metrics. My firm operates 'Best Place to Work' programs in 41 US markets. The winners of these contests don't leave engagement to 'chance.' They are intentional about engineering an environment where talented people flourish.

Greg Harris Omaha, Nebraska

To me, the research showing the importance of employee engagement is overwhelming, and goes right back to the Hawthorne experiments in the 1930s. The barrier to wider acceptance of the link is the illogical separation of strategic discussions, policies for greater efficiency, etc from misleadingly entitled 'soft' matters. We need to challenge the false metaphor that people are 'resources' or 'assets'. They're not. They are the company, and produce every asset within it.

Phil Whiteley

In the current climate of skills shortages both retention and recruitment are only going to become more important. The (CIPD) reports 85% of organisations experiencing recruitment difficulties and 73% experiencing retention problems in their human capital checklist for UK Plc

Pete Bradon, head of research, Best Companies

Look after your reputation. If the world believes that your organisation is a poor 'corporate citizen' they will tell your people. If your employees believe what they hear they will increasingly distance themselves from the business. And if they don't, they will get increasingly frustrated if they see that you are doing nothing to correct these misperceptions.

Either way, organisations that proactively manage their reputations will also enjoy higher levels of employee engagement.

Andy Parsley, Green Lion Insight and Solutions UK

The reason employee engagement is not articulated easily is the same as the reason that employees are often not engaged in their job and organisation. What is the reason? Most people's dialogue skills let them down and they are unable to communicate with clarity or check their message is understood. Most of us have no idea how we look and sound when we communicate we merely state our point or command and move on. What often happens though is that the other person's understanding and ultimate implementation of our message is different from what we thought we'd conveyed. The impact of our communication has been impaired by how we looked and sounded, we don't check it and we get frustrated when some time down the line the message hasn't transformed into action in alignment with our communication.

Annette Kurer

When I talk with clients (and potential clients) about employee engagement I ask them what their employees are doing to get themselves engaged. I ask them what excites their employees. Too often we’re looking to deliver a result or a process rather than deliver a mechanism/concept that will allow the employee to figure it out by his or herself.

Telling your people “this is how you’re going to be engaged” is ludicrous. It’s almost as bad as telling people you’re empowered to run with a task and then all the manager does is steer them and correct them to do it “my way.”

Staff needs to be given far more credit. Staff ideas need to be listened to, heard and implemented. That’s how you get engagement. If you’re going to keep ramming things down their throats………….good luck.

And while I know some of you are envisioning chaos with this approach â€' let’s just answer one question………………….Is your way working?

Rich DiGirolamo www.richdigirolamo.com

I feel larger companies have successfully concentrated on mechanisms/concepts to improve employee engagement. Branding angle adds a lot to this. Employees are more satisfied to be associated with bigger brands. In my opinion companies start looking at the concept only after a sizable growth. Smaller organization are focusing more on increasing business not realizing that the engaged employees can yield better profits. It’s a learning which would come with growth. Bigger organisations also have stronger processes in place which do not allow indivisual interference. leaving little space to the managers to violate 'walk the talk' concept.

Tulasi India

Iam practisng HR for over 3 decades. In the beginning, we were only taking Opinion Surveys. Subsequently, we migrated to Employee Satisfacvton survey also, on selected critical paarmeters. Criticial parameters unwent change/ refinement, as time went by. Contexualising the HR interventions & tracking thier outcomes wer our objective. We were alost trying to identify their acceptance/ rejection & effectiveness of the HR activies were captured. We aso went throguh Climate Surveys. Later, we also went for Employee Commitment Surveys. For the last couple of years, we are also conducting Employee Engagaement Surveys. The surveys output is respoed at the enterprise elvel and Corrective Action/ Preventive Action/ Remedial Plan is put in palce, and actions taken.

M.S.Sreekumar Trivandrum/ Cochin, Kerala, INDIA

You need to ask the question ... Why have management and the academics and the consultants been asking these questions since the dawn of the industrial era... Why have they remolded/repackaged/re-re the same basic questions and why have they FAILED? What is it in the basic construction of work (not the physical effort - the construction of the institution of work) that has persisted in defeating attempts by the 'professional' to rectify the 'problem'?

A re-examination of hierarchy and the distribution of benefits within the corporate entity needs to be questioned. Questioning the standard narrative of hierarchy, who controls work processes and knowledge would seem to be salient. And the basic position for corporate power and the 'rights' of management are central. When reviewing the literature of labor and the working classes it would seem as if these types of issues are central. My 30 years experience tells me that as long as management perceives itself as have power over other classes of workers (we tend to forget that management are workers too) that these issues will remain unsolved and a rich source of income for a few with little change in the outcomes.... metrics aside ... we have all experienced how surveys are created and analyzed...

These are issues of power and the benefits accrued to those powerful people ... In my humble opinion, when the benefits of the labor of all the workers are distributed with greater equity these issues will diminish ...

John Truty Chicago

The Conference Board 'study' of Employee Engagement is a referenced based, not empirically based, journalistic examination of published papers and sales materials that produces a homogenized definition based on word count frequency inaccurately described as 'meta-analysis'. The Conference Board's definition sets back scientific standardized measurement of engagement to the dark ages by publishing this collated version of definitions drawn primarily from their financial sponsors. Engaging employees is an art and responsibility of management made possible only by statistically measuring 15 engagement drivers via validated survey questionnaire instument with results reported by group and holding managers responsible for keeping employee attitudes towards those engagement drivers within or above the acceptable range. For those interested in a non-mystical, empirically proven definition and practical description of engagement see white papers at www.ScarlettSurveys.com. Be well.

Ken Scarlett USA

Regardless of what studies are done on employee engagement, lower class employees will continue to be used, abused, mucked up and . Studies are good but employment practices in some countries still do not favor employees

Vinal Yd

Excellent article. To add another perspective on it, the most engaged person you will typically find in a business is the business owner.

In many ways, employee engagement programmes are trying to get the attitude, drive, passion and belief of the business owner into the employees.

When you can do that, you have a company which is fully focused on its customers, is connected with its employees, and is able to adapt and respond to the changing needs of its market.

Much of employee engagement appears to focus on measurement and surveys, but the real answer (in my opinion) to creating a workforce full of engaged employees, is for the leaders to get closer to the employees, and employees to get closer to the leaders.

This closeness is what happens when a future man and wife get together, and it is the same closeness which needs to happen in companies between leaders and employees. Only then will true engagement happen, and the desired increase in revenue and profit growth materialize.


Richard Parkes Cordock www.enterpriseleaders.com

Very informative as I am a disabled male of 51 years, and a returning student. I am three and one half sessions into earning a degree with an elite college. Debt is going to be steep which creates anxiety, and one of the driving forces which enable me to succeed/motivate/adapt quite well in my academe. The obstacles I face and corporate mentality certainly are knowledge of necessity to me. Looking forward to more shared wisdom. Thank you.

Kipp Upstate New York

First, this is a well written article. It provides critical insights in a meaningful and well supported manner. You said, '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'. I have been fortunate to teach and present on the topic of employee engagement over the years. I do my best to be a student of employee engagement at the academic and organizational level. Based on what I have seen, employee engagement can also be viewed through the question, 'Do you have your game face on?' If people come to work everyday, ready, willing, and able to do their best, which is a significant part of the research by Gallup and others, then they will leverage engagement opportunitities. In this way, the individual has a responsibility in this engagement dance too. Clearly, it takes two to Tango - the organization and the employee.

I invite you to check out the following website for additional insights on this topic and others to accelerate organizational performance:

www.danajarvis.org Adjunct Professor, Duquesne University

Dana E. Jarvis, MPA, MSW Pittsburgh, PA

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

I agree yet few managers know how to identify which job finalists have the best chance of working successfully with their new managers. If managers hired for talent, they would know which job finalist to hire.

Bob Gately

Part of the story is that with all employee research on engagement we're missing a piece of the puzzle. This is company performance, overall financially, growth rate, competitive advantages, etc. Control for this and lo, we might just find that company performance predicts employee engagement more than the other way around, for more obvious practical reasons than one might think. Does this mean don't bother to measure and track employee engagement? Of course not. Just take a more scientific approach to understanding cause and effect.

Mike Morgan Dallas, Texas

I strongly believe that it is the kind of relationship shared between the manager & his /her subordinate that will determine the levels of employee engagement as the manager would be instrumental in increasing the line of vision between the employee performance & contibution towards company success, similarly adding to the self esteem of being associated with the particular organisation;thus ensuring the motivational levels and increasing employee engagement.

Pranali Rajput