What is Employee Engagement in Reality?

Stuart Sinclair - February 28, 2018
Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is a goal all businesses strive for, but often struggle to achieve. A recent Economic Research Council survey data revealed that in the UK in 2016:

  • Just 8% of employed were enthused about their work and work environment.
  • 73% identify as ‘not engaged’ and demonstrate little energy or passion in their work.
  • 19% class themselves as ‘actively disengaged’

To tackle the issue of these disengaged masses, as business leaders we need to go back to basic and ask:

“What is employee engagement?”

Employee engagement is a term most business leaders are familiar with, but it’s remarkably difficult to define. Almost every article, organisation or individual has a slightly different angle on what the definition of employee engagement might be. And from inconsistency comes confusion not only about what employee engagement is, but what businesses expect it to deliver in practice.

First, some established definitions

Let’s start at the very beginning. Academic William Kahn defined employee engagement in 1990 as:

“The harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles.” (1)

No, we didn’t quite understand that either. No wonder the idea took time to take off.

Next, a big player in the world of business stats: Gallup. Gallup defines engaged employees as:

“Those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Gallup categorizes workers as "engaged" based on their responses to key workplace elements it has found (to) predict important organizational performance outcomes.”

Note the three core elements of engagement Gallup cite. Employees should be:

• Involved

• Enthusiastic

• Committed

It’s a viewpoint that many commentators would agree with, including Professor John Purcell, a leading authority on people management and employment relations, and academic advise to ACAS (the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service).

“Engagement is a combination of attitude and behaviour. The attitude is ‘commitment’, and the behaviour is ‘going the extra mile’” (2)

It’s interesting how Purcell adds an extra dimension by suggesting that engaged employees ‘go the extra mile’. This is an action that combines both an enthusiasm for the work and a commitment to getting the job done.


The Macleod Report

A major milestone in the establishment of employee engagement in mainstream business thinking was the MacLeod Report ‘Engaging for Success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement’, commissioned by the UK government and published in 2009. (3)

In the introduction to their influential report, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke stated:

“We have read many studies which show a clear correlation between engagement and performance – and most importantly between improving engagement and improving performance.

“We believe that if employee engagement and the principles that lie behind it were more widely understood, if good practice was more widely shared, if the potential that resides in the country’s workforce was more fully unleashed, we could see a step change in workplace performance and in employee well-being, for the considerable benefit of UK plc.”

They proposed four enablers of employee engagement:

  • A strategic narrative
  • Engaging managers
  • Employee voice
  • Organisational integrity

These enables add flesh to the employee engagement theory collection by suggesting not just what is required, but to a limited extent, how to best achieve it.

Book a demo and discover how our modular internal communication app can  increase employee engagement at your company.

A workplace approach

Later in the same report, MacLeod takes the process on a stage further, defining engagement as:

“A workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being.”

So now, more employee attributes have been added to the definition mix:

  • Setting and achieving goals
  • Motivation to contribute
  • Enhancing their own well-being

The list is growing….

The moral argument

Quoted in an article for the CIPD website, Laura Harrison, Director of Strategy and Transformation at the CIPD says:

“Engagement is sold as a means to performance and productivity — it’s not sold as a moral imperative or a means by which you create value for your workforce. It is only a reasonable expectation on behalf of business leaders that your workforce will be engaged with your vision and your strategy if you have been inclusive in how you developed that vision and strategy.”

So to the list we add:

  • Strategy
  • Vision
  • Inclusivity in decision-making
  • An element of moral obligation

The employee experience

So far, the emphasis has been on what the employee must do, and less on why they should do it. Jacob Morgan, author of The Employee Experience Advantage, says in an article for the Harvard Business Review:

“When organisations make real gains, it’s because they’re thinking longer-term. They’re going beyond what engagement scores are telling them to do in the moment and redesigning employee experience, creating a place where people want, not just need, to work each day.”

The following blog, titled '13 Fantastic Employee Engagement Ideas', contains lots of ideas how to improve employee engagement.

The employee experience and work engagement

David Guest, professor of organisational psychology and human resource management at King’s College London, believes the confusion arises from the tradition approach to employee engagement. He splits engagement into two types:

Traditional organisational engagement = organisational commitment and organisational citizenship behaviour


Work engagement = giving employees more autonomy, responsibility and more challenge in their individual jobs

His view is that:

“If you can use work design plus organisational support to generate engagement in the job or work that people do, that seems to first of all get better responses on the surveys, and second to be associated with higher wellbeing… On balance I think you will get enhanced productivity, because with enhanced wellbeing you will have lower absence, fewer quits and generally more positive employees.”

This split of definitions focuses on desirable outcomes:

  • More responses
  • Higher well-being
  • Enhanced productivity

The personal viewpoint

If you have any doubt about whether your colleagues share your definition of employee engagement, just ask them: “What is employee engagement?”

We did the same in a totally unscientific and random way to various colleagues. Two fascinating responses stood out for us:

  • A highly respected HR Director (admittedly put on the spot in a classic ‘ten seconds in a lift’ moment) suggested:

“Employee engagement is the permanent on-going conversation with every employee, and their actions and behaviours.”

As one might expect for an HR Director at the top of her game, her focus was on the conversation.

  • An experienced engineer at a major utilities company believed it was about his behaviours and attitudes, with the emphasis on him as an employee to do the engaging.

Which leads us back to MacLeod again….

Probably the best definition out there

In probably the best definition we could find, David MacLeod says:

“(Employee engagement) is about how we create the conditions in which employees offer more of their capability and potential.”

This definition is so important because it puts the onus fair and square on the employer to create the right environment, not the employee to do all the legwork. This shift of responsibility requires an employer to take on the tasks of promoting, creating and sustaining engagement, not just instigating it.

It is perhaps this misunderstanding of engagement as an employee-led process that is causing so many employees to be disengaged for so much of their working lives.

Great expectations

The current ‘employee’ emphasis creates an expectation that businesses can do something (buy a simple tool, get social, offer a reward) and then sit back and wait for employees to get involved and benefits to accrue.

Such an approach is simply not going to cut it with an increasingly savvy workforce with their own high expectations of what engagement offers them -or should offer them.

So, for employers, the real hard work comes in creating an engagement environment that employees will:

  • Like
  • Trust
  • Contribute to

If MacLeod is right, this provides employees with the right environment to express commitment, go the extra mile, improve productivity and, probably most important of all, improve their own wellbeing.

A workspace, not a culture

By thinking of Macleod’s conditions as a workspace, rather than part of the business culture, business leaders can start to build internal communication spaces where they as employers can promote, nurture and encourage engagement - and see their staff respond.

So, as we first proposed, how would this employee engagement definition work in practice? To answer that, we would tweak MacLeod’s definition just a little:

“Employee engagement thrives in a virtual workplace where employees can offer more of their capability and potential.”

Now employees have the opportunity to offer more of their capability and potential by engaging in a variety of activities within the workspace.

Optimising the workspace

None of this happens by accident. Employers must ensure their employee engagement workspace has the features, facilities and most of all, involvement by senior staff that keeps it current, creative and (dare we say) popular with employees.

Over the next few months we’ll be exploring more about employee engagement, including the benefits, the methods and the solutions.

Stay tuned…


(1) Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work Kahn, William A Academy of Management Journal; Dec 1990; 33, 4; ProQuest pg. 692
(2) Purcell, J. (2010) Building Employee Engagement. London: ACAS
(3) Engaging for Success, MacLeod and Clarke, Department for Business (BIS), 2009. Download from dera.ioe.ac.uk/1810/1/file52215.pdf


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