What is employee engagement? The long answer or the short answer...

Stuart Sinclair - May 28, 2020

Employee engagement is a goal all businesses strive for, but often struggle to achieve. The Gallop 2019 State of The Global Workforce revealed that in the UK:

  • Just 11% of employed were engaged.
  • 68% identify as ‘not engaged’ and demonstrate little energy or passion in their work.
  • 21% class themselves as ‘actively disengaged’

As the employee engagement survey results show, there is an issue in many workplaces. 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 one which is 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 employee engagement trends have differed over time. And from inconsistency comes confusion not only about what employee engagement is, but what businesses expect it to deliver in practice. Considering that employee engagement is so often considered essential to producing a motivated, focused workforce, getting to grips with this concept is vital for boosting your business to the next level.

First, some established definitions

Let’s start at the very beginning. In 1990, at the birth of the notion, academic William Kahn defined employee enagement in 1990 as being:

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

In essence, Kahn appears to be defining a clear link between the role of the employee, and their personal perception of self. Harnessing, or achieving this link was a perfect opportunity for business to generate improved employee engagement. The best methods for achieving this, however, remained a little more ambiguous, and this remains one of the core dimensions of employee engagement.

The next attempt to conquer the idea came from a big player in the world of business stats: Gallup. According to Gallup, engaged employees were considered:


“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

This builds on the initial definition purported by Kahn and offers more tangible ideas to help employers engage their teams. In addition to proposing a definition, Gallup has also worked to define ‘well-being’ in a wider sense; a concept which is important in the workplace. The results state that there are five essential elements of well -being which need to be met:

  • Social - having supporting relationships
  • Purpose - liking what you do each day, and finding motivation to achieve your goals
  • Financial - managing your economic life in order to increase security and reduce stress
  • Community - feeling safe and having a sense of pride in your community
  • Physical - having good health, and enough energy to get things done

Though the results can be applied to any area of life, they become particularly interesting when you apply them to Gallup’s ideas regarding the theory of employee engagement.  By implementing these ideas into the working space, Gallup seems to be implying, you can increase employee engagement across your team, offering extensive benefits for all parties involved.

The Extra Mile

These notions of involvement, enthusiasm and commitment are central to engagement, according to Gallup. This is a viewpoint that many commentators would agree with, including Professor John Purcell. As a leading authority on people management and employment relations, and academic adviser to ACAS (the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service), he knows a thing or two about engagement. He expands Gallups idea, stating that:

“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 to the theory  by suggesting that engaged employees ‘go the extra mile’. This seems to be referring to the importance of employee advocacy, and is an action that combines both an enthusiasm for the work and a commitment to getting the job done; both of which are major bonuses to both employee and employer.

Gallup UK engaged workforce 2019

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 enablers 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. For the first time, employers and business owners find themselves with a tangible plan to boost engagement, and enjoy the benefits which come with this.

MacLeod and Clarke are also placing responsibility for improving engagement on the shoulders of employers, seemingly suggesting that it is the responsibility of the workplace to ensure that this ideal atmosphere is curated and maintained. Once these guidelines are in place, they seem to be saying, the engagement will follow as a natural next step.

Highly engaged business units - 70% fewer safety incidents

A workplace approach

Later in the same report, MacLeod takes the process one step 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

Once again, MacLeod is placing responsibility on the employer to boost engagement, adjusting the existing definition to a more leader-centric model. He also appears to be suggesting that encouraging employee engagement offers benefits for both employee and employer. The employer will enjoy a more motivated, productive workforce, with every member of the team working and striving towards a common goal. The employee, on the other hand, enjoys a boosted sense of well-being, a notion of purpose, and a feeling that they are part of a greater communal goal.

Laura Harrison, Director of Strategy and Transformation at the CIPD, appears to agree with MacLeod in terms of employer responsibility. She sees it as a natural progression for an organisation which works hard to create a holistic, involved business. In an article for the CIPD website, she states that

“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.”

Crucially, Harrison makes the point that only inclusivity on the part of leaders and directors will nurture and facilitate the optimum environment required for maximum engagement by employees. She also adds to the existing definition, allowing us to include strategy, vision, inclusivity in decision making and an element of moral obligation to the list.

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The employee experience

We have so far explored a range of theories which work to build and develop a common definition of employee engagement. Harrison, MacLeod and Clarke all seem to agree that an element of responsibility for generating employee engagement must be placed firmly on the shoulders of employers; only with their input can the preferred culture evolve and grow to ensure an engaged and productive workforce. Any engagement strategy, it seems must start at the top. Gallup appears to concur, producing a list of conditions which need to be met to get the very most from employees, and ensure that they feel safe, valued and encouraged during their working hours.

There has been a great deal of observation on the definition of engagement, much of which has placed the emphasis has been on what the employee must do, and less on why they should do it. Just why is employee engagement important? Can it really offer substantial benefits to your business? Jacob Morgan, author of The Employee Experience Advantage, seems to believe so. He 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 employee experience and work engagement

Despite extensive research, narrowing down a precise definition of employee engagement remains a real challenge. David Gest, professor of organisational psychology and human resource management at King’s College London, believes the confusion arises from the traditional 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

Only if both of these strands are met, he argues, can employee engagement truly be achieved.

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

We can see, therefore, that boosting engagement can offer advantages for businesses. The secret is to employ long-term, forward thinking strategies to maximise engagement and ensure that this ethos is echoed at every level of the working hierarchy.

Find out how an employee engagement app can play a pivotal role in delivering an employee engagement strategy

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?” Chances are high that there will be no single, unifying response.

We tried 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. Altering the paradigm to place the responsibility on the shoulders of employers as opposed to employees can have transformative results.

Engaged Businesses experience 40% fewer quality incidents

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. In the modern working world, many employees are far more on the ball when it comes to their rights and requirements, and so businesses need to go that extra step to facilitate and generate engagement. This includes a total overhaul at every level of the working environment.

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

  • Like
  • Trust
  • Contribute to

If MacLeod is right, this stimulus 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.

engaged emplyees are more productive and profitable

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 communications 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.”

Whether via an employee engagement app, or targeted engagement opportunities, 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 platform or 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. Without this commitment from the upper levels of the business, engagement is likely to drop, and with it, the additional motivation and benefits for the organisation which come with it.


(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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