The first in a three-part series on engagement as a distinct behavioural construct and the underlying psychological models.Read part two Understanding Engagement and part three Encouraging Engagement.
Employee engagement has been convincingly connected to business outcomes, so much so that it is a key performance indicator for many executives. As both practitioners and researchers agree that effective communications is essential to engagement, we are greatly concerned with it in our practice as internal communicators.
But with all the discussion of engagement in the workplace, and though we all recognize someone who is engaged in what they do, there is still too broad an understanding of what it is. How does engagement work and how do we communicate in support of it?
Like job burnout – a concept which was born in the folklore and developed over the following decades into a well-defined construct (Maslach 2001) – engagement evolved from grassroots recognition of the relationship that people have with their work. As such, it is not derived from researcher models but is an intuitive concept seeking clarification and being studied for unique value and distinction from other constructs.
The growing consensus on engagement focuses on the “thereness” of engaged individuals in their role. They employ their whole selves and perform their roles with energy, authenticity, and a real connection. In a recent article Alan Saks, a Professor of Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Industrial Relations, described the focus of engagement as “how you do what you are supposed to be doing” (2008, p41). Engaged individuals are not defined by their innovativeness, job satisfaction or their role-expanding behaviours; they are not defined by their alignment with the organization’s strategies nor their commitment to it. Many of these characteristics may also be true of engaged individuals, some being necessary for engagement, others following from individual’s engagement. Engagement as it is coming to be described is a more focused concept.
While researchers differ in their opinions of how close they are to arriving at a definition, there are two dominant models put forth that are amassing empirical research in their support. The models are not dissimilar in their description of engaged individuals or the conditions that lead to engagement.
Engagement as Psychological Presence (Kahn)
The first model of work engagement was derived from clinical psychology and applied to organizations by William Kahn. His psychological presence model described engagement as ‘the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s “preferred self” in task behaviors that promote connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotional), and active, full role performances’ (1990, p700).
Based on the work of Abraham Maslow (1954) and others, Kahn proposed that people have preferred versions of themselves that they wish to be as often and as fully as they are able to in their work as in the rest of their lives. The more people can fully inhabit these preferred selves the more creative, connected and happier—the more present—they are. However, being “yourself” involves risk to the individual. It exposes the intimate self to the world where it can be humiliated, and it requires significant amounts of energy to maintain. As such, it is not a frivolous undertaking for most people and cannot be maintained indefinitely.
Kahn found in his studies, corroborated by May et al (2004), that engagement arises in situations where the work is felt to be meaningful to individuals, they feel safe committing themselves personally to the role, and they feel they have the physical, emotional and mental resources available to them to perform effectively. In essence, the individual is in a constant negotiation with the world for how much of themselves they are willing and able to invest in their role based on the perceived meaningfulness of the outcome, the safety of the situation, and how available they feel to accomplish it (p694).
Kahn’s model is different than many of the popular conceptions of engagement where it is presented as a more chronic state; employees are either engaged or they aren’t. With psychological presence, we see something more fluid that flows with and between the individual and their situation almost on a moment by moment basis.
In further work, Kahn went on to describe the four behavioural dimensions of psychological presence as attentiveness to the situation, connection to the role and to others involved in it, integration of the components of identity, and focus on the task at hand (1992).
In our next article, Understanding Engagement, we look at the model for engagement proposed by researchers of burnout and contrast it with psychological presence.
Kahn William A. (1990). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. The Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), pp. 692-724
Kahn William A. (1992). To Be Fully There: Psychological Presence at Work. Human Relations, 45 (4), pp. 321-349.
Maslach Christina , Wilmar B Schaufeli, Michael P Leiter (2001). Job Burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, pp. 397-422.
May Douglas R., Gilson Richard L., Harter Lynn M. (2004). The psychological conditions of meaningfulness, safety and availability and the engagement of the human spirit at work. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 77 (1), pp. 11-37.
Saks, Alan M. (2008). The Meaning and Bleeding of Employee Engagement: How Muddy Is the Water? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1(1), pp. 40–43.