Employee engagement theory is the bedrock of today's thinking on how to engage and motivate employees and has had a lot of influence in modern human resources practice within organisations. But how has it changed over the years? And how can you get the best from all of the employee engagement theories that are out there to produce effective employee engagement ideas that will work for your organisation?
The importance of employee engagement theory
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reports that the work on employee engagement "focuses on mutual gains in employment relationships, seeking the good of employees and the good of the organisation that they work for" (Employee engagement and motivation factsheet, December 2019).
The consensus is that the theory of employee engagement began with the work of William Kahn, a psychologist who is credited with introducing the concept of employee engagement through his three dimensions of employee engagement, which began to answer the question of how to engage employees.
From there, many different models and definitions within the field of employee engagement have evolved. The general theory, however, revolves around the principle that organisational leaders should make efforts to ensure that they are employees are fully engaged in order to improve performance and productivity. In other words, staff should care as much about their work as they do about other areas of their lives.
This research is closely linked to the quality of management practice. A 2016 study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that a 0.1 increase in management quality score was associated with a 9.6% increase in productivity. It also reported that practices such as training, managing underperformance, promotions and performance reviews had a strong correlation with productivity and engagement.
A history of engagement theory
Following Kahn's work, there have been many pieces of academic research undertaken on employee engagement. This has resulted in literature reviews being conducted by the likes of Kular et al at Kingston University in 2008, which noted that the work has demonstrated that there is a link between employee engagement and organisational outcomes.
Across the last two decades, researchers have produced different definitions of employee engagement to support their findings. Some examples include:
- emotional and intellectual commitment or attachment
- a passion or high level of enthusiasm for the employee's work or job
- the amount of additional effort employees invest in their work
- levels of dedication employees feel towards their work
- positive cognitive, emotional and behavioural states that align with organisational outcomes.
While these definitions are different, it's easy to see that they are inter-twined and can be linked back to the ONS's findings on the influence of good management practice on employee engagement.
In a report by the Institute For Employment Studies (Robertson-Smith and Marwick, Employee Engagement: A review of current thinking, May 2009), the variety of definitions have been helpfully put into three categories as follows:
- company based models, which focus on outcomes - that is aligning employee commitment, skills and effort ('going the extra mile') with organisational values and objectives
- academic definitions, which focus more on the psychology of the mutually beneficial relationship between employer and employee - for example, feeling energised, feelings of dedication and levels of focus
- consultancy based models, which relate engagement to a psychological state that is facilitated by aligning individual and organisational performance and providing a culture where employees feel valued and encouraged.
All of these models are designed to increase employee engagement.
So where do these employee engagement theories take us?
If we are to follow the body of work referred to above, the challenge lies in applying employee engagement theory in organisations where cultures and employment practices are so varied. Worldwide research indicates that employees are more engaged in certain countries, although researchers admit that nations can have different measures, making comparisons more difficult.
This is where engagement research has become more sophisticated. Rather than suggest that studies and research apply across the board, the research is becoming increasingly focused on national and cultural differences. For example, studies suggest that employees in the USA are more motivated by understanding and feeling a part of their employers' mission, whereas employees in the UK want to work with people who have a shared value base (which possibly also demands good interpersonal working relationships).
The afore-mentioned Institute for Employment Studies report takes this a step further and states that research has indicated that employee engagement is influenced by factors such as individual personality, the age profile of a workforce and length of service. This suggests that general employee engagement theory will only take you so far - you need to obtain good quality information (such as employee engagement survey results) about your employees so that you can pick relevant models that will work for your organisation. For example, does your organisational culture support psychological wellbeing (the consultancy based model)? Or are your employees keen to learn more so that they can make higher level decisions at work (the company based model)? An employee engagement app can make garnering and collating all of that data easier.
Has the research improved employee engagement levels? The jury is out on that one. According to Gallop's 2017 Stage of Global Workforce Report, around 85% of employees from across the world do not feel engaged at work. However, the CIPD reported from its Employee Outlook report in 2017 that UK organisations were succeeding (albeit slowly) in improving employee engagement levels. It stated that net job satisfaction - in addition to other measures such as use of initiative and degree of influence at work - has increased.
There are indications, then, that an understanding of employee engagement theory and practice in organisations can produce results if done properly. The body of research indicates that organisations that adopt what they need for their specific workforces, whether that means improving management styles, analysing levels of decision making or embracing any other practice, will add meaning to the lives of employees and encourage engagement.
Employee engagement theory in practice
Despite the varying pieces of research out there, a number of over-arching principles can be gathered from our review as follows:
- the theories have moved from 'one size fits all' approaches to those which take account of national, cultural and individual differences
- understanding what is meaningful at work means that organisations must have a better understanding of their employees, which can be achieved by through high quality employee-manager relationships and an employee engagement platform
- working relationships and communications channels are important, especially in terms of listening to each other
- positive human resources practices that support all of the above are a key foundation
- tailoring what has been learned from employee engagement theory to fit with the organisation's values and vision - this might even involve producing your own definition of employee engagement.