Employee engagement is well-established in practitioners’ vocabulary. It is often brought up in strategic discussions, business reports and investment decisions. However, in contrast to other business terms, there is little clarity as to the meaning, scope, best practice and the evidence behind employee engagement. Do we really have the best knowledge to make decisions on employee engagement?
With this in mind, the CIPD has very recently published its report on employee engagement. It captures the best available evidence on the definition and meaning of employee engagement, how to best measure it, the evidence which supports its importance and what outcomes to expect from it.
You can read the full report on the CIPD’s website. Here is a synopsis of its most interesting points.
Following is a summary of the report by the CIPD’s Senior Adviser for Organisational Behaviour, Jonny Gifford, highlighting the key insights of the report.
What Is Engagement?
The main approach we recommend to thinking about employee engagement is to treat it as an umbrella term, using it to describe a broad area of people management. When you need to be more specific, you would then refer to narrower constructs such as work engagement, organisational commitment or organisational identification. This allows you to maintain a broad strategic focus, alongside precision on your priority concerns and what you expect to achieve or improve.
A second valid option is to narrow what you mean by engagement to focus on the more precise and robust construct of work engagement. This aligns with the best research on engagement, so it’s easier to make evidence-based decisions that are likely to be effective. However, it does require a narrower focus than what is usually understood by ‘employee engagement’.
How Should We Measure Engagement?
Numerous questionnaire-based measures relate to employee engagement, but most are not tried and tested to scientific standards. Of measures that carry the label ‘engagement’, the most trustworthy is the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES), available in 17, 9 and even 3-item versions, making it very user-friendly. We also recommend well-established measures of affective organisational commitment (that is, the psychological feeling), organisational identification (how employees identify with their organisations) and work motivation.
Getting clear and robust measures is well worth the effort yet is not enough on its own. HR professionals must pay attention to the ecosystem of how and when measures are reported and who acts on them. As a diagnostic tool, measurement is only a starting point: what employers and managers then do to respond is even more important.
What’s The Evidence On An Engagement-Performance Link?
Work engagement predicts both task performance and ‘contextual performance’ – that is, contributing to the organisation you work for beyond your core job. However, these relationships are weak: the performance differences are too small to be able to observe in day-to-day activity and would need to be measured to be detected.
To some extent there is a two-way relationship, with work engagement and performance influencing each other. So more engaged workers will go on to perform better, but an uptick in performance will also lead to more engaged workers.
If we treat ‘employee engagement’ as an umbrella term, we must also look at related constructs – our report focuses on organisational identification and organisational commitment. The best evidence shows that these constructs do predict performance (and do so more than performance in turn predicts them). However, the relationships are not strong: the impacts on contextual performance are larger but even here they are moderate.
What Engages Or Motivates Us?
Several aspects of work and people management consistently crop up as key drivers of employee engagement and related constructs. These include:
- Workers must feel properly supported by their managers and colleagues and should receive good quality and timely feedback.
- Being empowered in your job is also very important. This includes having work autonomy – for example, being able to make decisions about how and at what pace you work – and having the right skills and the confidence to do a good job.
- Related, employees must not feel overwhelmed by the demands of their job.
In more specific areas, we also found evidence of other drivers. For example:
- Perceived organisational justice – whether employees feel things are fair – drives both organisational commitment and identification.
- Recognition and rewards support commitment.
- An organisation’s perceived reputation, employee trust and person–organisation fit all contribute to how strongly people identify with their organisations.
Some of these findings connect to a broader question of what motivates people at work. There is a huge amount of research on motivation, so our report focuses on the best evidenced and most established theories. These are:
- Social exchange theory: employees will be more motivated if they believe favourable treatment from others reflects a genuine concern for their wellbeing.
- Social identity theory: people’s motivations are shaped by how they identify as people, both in personal characteristics such as gender, and job-related characteristics such as profession or status.
- Self-determination theory: three basic psychological needs – autonomy, competence and relatedness – enable psychological growth and wellbeing.
- Self-regulation theory: how well we manage ourselves influences how we act out our motivations; in particular stopping ourselves from doing things we know we should not do support our long-term goals.
This evidence review, which critiques and summarises the available research on employee engagement and related areas will be particularly useful for practitioners and those interested in increasing employee engagement in their organisations. It is certainly a step towards building a better and more evidence-based understanding of employee engagement.
Author Bio: Jonny is the CIPD’s Senior Adviser for Organisational Behaviour. He has had a varied career in researching employment and people management issues, working at the Institute for Employment Studies and Roffey Park Institute before joining the CIPD in 2012. A central focus in his work is applying behavioural science insights to core aspects of people management. Recently he has led programmes of work doing this in the areas of recruitment, reward and performance management.
Jonny is also committed to helping HR practitioners make better use of evidence to make better decisions. He runs the CIPD Applied Research Conference, which exists to strengthen links between academic research and HR practice.
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