One of the things that makes me crazy about the work of employee engagement is the sloppiness we allow around how we define and approach it. As I talk to leaders within organizations who are currently spending enormous sums of money on measuring and attempting to improve engagement, they struggle with basic questions like “How do you define employee engagement?” and “How does employee engagement drive your organization’s success?”
If we can’t clearly define this work and why it matters, how can we ever expect to make a huge impact, let alone be taken seriously? We have to do better.
Over the past year, I’ve been working out a conceptual model of employee engagement as an attempt to create movement toward a solution. That model is laid out in this post.
A Conceptual Model of Employee Engagement
Before I get into the model, let’s call out a few things about why things are such a mess today. Employee engagement isn’t a tangible thing. It is an invention of academics and consultants intended to help us make sense of the complex relationship between employees and their work.
Because “engagement” is a made-up construct used to describe abstract ideas, there is no universal definition of engagement. The closest we could come would be to agree upon a standard, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
The challenge is that every consultant, researcher, and technology tool provider has a slightly different take on employee engagement. And they like it that way as it helps them differentiate their approach. This feels both confusing and annoying to anyone trying to actually engage employees.
This lack of clarity means that managers, leaders, and even HR professionals are often left wondering exactly what really matters when it comes to engaging employees. And the employees end up paying the price by living through an inconsistent and non-optimal work experience every day.
Today, I’m going to share with you some definitions and a model of employee engagement based on my research and experience. My intention in sharing this isn’t to sell you something or test out a new product idea I have. Instead, I want to help you think differently and better about employee engagement in a way that might actually help us bring more intention to our work.
What I share below is an evolving work in progress. I don’t proclaim this as the “right” answer but I hope to provoke conversation and debate that moves us forward in the quest to create work experiences that work better for humans.
What Exactly Is Employee Engagement?
Most commonly, engagement is defined as some combination of discretionary effort and intent to stay. In other words, an engaged employee gives me more effort than I pay them for, and they aren’t thinking about leaving me. Call me a skeptic, but I think these definitions were created to secure funding from executives rather than to drive the actual work. Who wouldn’t want more effort you don’t have to pay extra for or decreased turnover? I’m in!
Other definitions (including some I’ve embraced in the past) define engagement in terms of emotional or social connection to work. And while this may be true, it is incomplete because it does not capture the “why.” Definitions like these feel hollow to bottom-line focused execs because they sound squishy and disconnected from value creation and performance.
Here’s how I am defining engagement today:
Engagement is the degree to which an employee is both willing and able to perform to their potential.
Ultimately, engagement is about unlocking performance potential. Organizations exist to perform. Without this performance imperative, the organization need not exist. So, any model of employee engagement that isn’t directly tied to performance is inadequate.
Notice the use of the words “willing” and “able” in the definition. Engagement is a gauge of both conscious commitment to achievement and the degree to which an individual’s experience and environment are either enabling or hindering their ability to give their fullest efforts to their work.
Engagement is not, however, the “end all, be all” for performance. There are also processes related to talent and management, separate from engagement, that are equally important to overall performance.
Talent processes are responsible for finding people with the right performance potential and then continuing to increase that potential through ongoing development. If you fully engage subpar (or wrong) talent, you get subpar results. Engagement without talent will always lead to subpar results.
Management processes are responsible for ensuring that available performance potential is applied and aligned to achieve organizational success. When you unlock performance potential but use it in the wrong way or apply it to the wrong thing, you can still fail.
It’s important to note here that management processes are different from the role of a Manager. A manager will have responsibilities across all three of these processes.
The point of sharing this is to highlight that while engagement is critical, it’s not a silver bullet. Good employee engagement won’t make up for bad talent or management processes. They are interconnected.
Talent delivers performance potential. Engagement unlocks that potential. Management ensures that potential is applied in the right way.
How Does Engagement Work?
Based on my experience and research, I believe that there are three major variables in employee engagement:
- Satisfaction. This is the extent to which an employee’s experience of work exceeds their expectations.
- Experience is the cumulative of an employee’s interactions with “work” over time that impact how they feel about their work and employer.
- Drive. Drive in my model is the degree to which an individual is motivated to achieve the goals and outcomes that are important to organizational success.
- Wellness. This represents the degree to which an individual’s core human needs are satisfied. When these needs are left unmet, it diminishes the individual’s ability to offer up their full potential.
I’ve always been a bit of a math nerd, so when I started working on a model, a math equation emerged. Please don’t take the equation literally. This equation is meant not as a simple calculation but as a conceptual model to represent the relationship between the variables.
Here’s how I believe engagement works:
At the heart of the equation is satisfaction. Satisfaction has gotten a bad rap as the early, not-as-sophisticated, version of engagement. Satisfaction is, and always has been, central to engagement. In this model, satisfaction is a measure of how your experience of work compares to your expectations.
The work of engagement is not only about shaping and creating employee experience; it’s also about managing and shaping employee expectations. In my career, I’ve seen very few organizations that do both well. When you have unrealistic expectations, even a great experience can leave you feeling unsatisfied. When you have lower expectations (for whatever reason), an average employee experience might feel pretty good. Positive satisfaction occurs only when your experience exceeds your expectations. Both factors are important.
It’s a lot like happiness. Happiness isn’t as much about what happens to you as it is about how you feel about what happens to you. The key to happiness lies in learning to manage your expectations. This is also true for engagement. Managing expectations is critical and often done poorly.
Employee experience is new language for us over the past few years, but it’s not new in actual practice. This is the area of the engagement equation that we’ve (as a profession of HR and leadership) been primarily focused on and where we’ve had great difficulty. At the heart of the issue is that employee experience today at most organizations was designed through a “work as a contract” way of thinking. Most modern work experience is designed for the primary benefit of the employer—to ensure that the employee is living up their end of the employment contract (psychological or otherwise). It’s a compliance-driven, “what have you done for me lately” experience.
The problem is that most of the research we have into employee engagement reveals that it is relational factors that most strongly motivate employees to greater contribution. Work is a relationship for employees. Things like feeling valued and trusted are always at the top of any list of engagement drivers along with other factors like appreciation and feeling like someone cares about us. Employees expect to be treated like they are in a relationship with work, not bound by a contract.
Wellness is an often overlooked but critical variable to engagement. If I am sick, hungover, scared, distracted, tired, lonely, worrying about how I’m going to pay my rent or in any other way compromised, I cannot give my fullest effort to work. If I’m suffering domestic abuse at home or I’m trying to care for a dying parent without much support and resources, my ability to contribute at work is diminished.
Wellness is and should be about helping, supporting, and equipping employees to pursue a greater sense of well-being in their lives. It’s about equipping each person to navigate more successfully the complexities of being human, so that when they show up to work, they feel like a whole and well person, able to give their full effort and energy to the work.
To do this work, we need to develop a better understanding of core human needs. In 2017, I worked with colleagues Christina Boyd-Smith and Joe Gerstandt to develop a model of motivating human needs. The model was distilled from a host of research-based frameworks ranging from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Carol Ryff’s Well-Being model and the Max-Neef model. I share it as an example of what a model for wellness might look like.
- Authenticity: Living and being embraced as a whole, unique person.
- Connection: Having quality relationships and intimacy with others.
- Freedom: Having and exercising choice in our lives. Influencing our future.
- Growth: Making progress towards a better version of ourselves. Moving towards our potential.
- Meaning: Knowing our actions matter. Feeling part of something bigger than ourselves.
- Safety: Feeling protected from danger or harm. Having a sense of security. Being free from fear.
- Health: Maintaining a well-functioning mind and body. Managing our energy and balance.
When these human needs are met at the individual level, we feel a sense of well-being that enables us to be our best and give our best.
Drive is the third variable of engagement. While this is a complex aspect to unpack, this is where the “willingness” of engagement lives. Hat tip to Dan Pink for introducing this idea of “drive” into our thinking about employee motivation. I don’t use the word here to mean exactly what Dan did in his great book, but something in the same realm. It’s where purpose, meaning, and perceived impact lives. It’s about the degree to which I believe and can see alignment between my personal career goals and the goals put upon me by the organization. Even when I feel well and satisfied, if I am not motivated to move the organization forward, I may not be of much value. Motivation to perform is critical to unlocking potential.
There are a lot of motivational theories that could be applied or used as a measurement framework for drive (including Dan Pink’s). I’m not going to argue here for any model as that debate can wait for another day. The argument I am making is that motivation to perform is a core variable in engagement. Without it, your engagement efforts will fall short.
In the employee engagement model (equation) above, each variable multiplies one another. For those who aren’t algebra geeks, that means that while any largely positive variable can amplify the others, if any one of the variables goes toward zero, the whole equation goes toward zero regardless of how positive the other variables may be.
In other words, if do an adequate job of supporting wellness, satisfaction and drive within your organization, investing in dramatically improving one of the three variables should provide a boost to engagement overall. But, if you do a great job on two variables (like satisfaction and drive) but overlook a third (wellness), if employee wellness suffers it could have a pretty dramatic negative impact on engagement overall.
Each variable is critical to overall engagement. If any of them fail, the whole thing fails. And to succeed in engagement requires that we succeed in maximizing each variable.
This is only a model. It’s meant to help us think more deeply and critically about the variables involved and their relation to one another. One of my goals in the upcoming years is to design, collaborate, and support research efforts to move from a theoretical model to a validated, quantitative framework that could give birth to a standard that could work across industries. I hope you will join me on that journey.
For now, I just hope to provoke your thinking and some debate.
What do you think?
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