Engagement Without Committment?

Stephen Gill, of The Performance Improvement Blog shares his thoughts about an article explaining how engaged employees are not necessarily committed to their organizations. In fact, the ScienceBlog explains that because of their orientation towards high-achievement, highly engaged individuals may be more disenfranchised when the budget cuts start rolling in.

I tend to agree with this analysis, though I will reserve final judgment until we arrive at a “final” definition of employee engagement. Herein lays the biggest problem with engagement research and practice. We don’t have a really good grasp on what it means. Every organization I have ever researched or worked with has a unique, “proprietary” definition of employee engagement. Literally, no two are alike and this seems to be by design. So far as I can tell, definitions of engagement are designed to bring competitive advantage, rather than conceptual clarity. As different as these are, each has a few elements in common.

1)      Employee Affect plays a significant role in this concept. Engaged employees are excited, energized, actively happy about their organizations, their work, their supervisors and coworkers. It is not simply positive affect, but a high degree of positive affect.

2)      Positively-valenced attitudes are usually included in measures of employee engagement. These include at least one item measuring general job satisfaction (unidimensional) and one item assessing organizational commitment.

The I/O Psychologist in me thinks of this in terms of construct validity; do we actually measure engagement when we claim to do so? I am not so sure that we do. If engagement measures include job satisfaction, supervisor satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover intent, then we are not actually measuring engagement. Unless, of course, we claim that engagement is a multi-dimensional construct with job satisfaction and commitment as facets. It is not clear that we do this consistently.

We have a tremendous incentive to get this right. Organizations clamor for measurements of engagement and interventions making 100% of their employees the most engaged in the solar system (the galaxy is a VERY big place, after all). There is a lot of money to be made by an organization that gets this right and explains it well. More importantly, we have an ethical and professional obligation to get this right. If we tell our clients that we measure engagement, then we better measure engagement, not something else. If we tell them we can help them increase employee engagement, then we should know what we are talking about.

So, does engagement mean commitment? If the practitioners I am familiar with are to be believed, yes it does. However, it appears that some empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Rather than feel threatened, I think this is a great opportunity for us all to revisit what exactly we mean by engagement so we can improve our efforts to exceed client expectations.

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~ by George Guajardo on July 1, 2009.

4 Responses to “Engagement Without Committment?”

  1. I agree; we need a common definition of employee engagement. In addition to the dimensions you mention in this blog post, some people talk about “discretionary effort”. This is when employees are willing to go the extra mile for the organization. Some surveys of employee engagement include this dimension in their questions. A good source for discussions about the definition of employee engagement is http://employeeengagement.ning.com/

    • Stephen, You are totally right about discretionary effort. Many of the engagement assessments I have seen include at least one item about discretionary effort. This is one of the constructs that businesses care most about where engagement is concerned. However, i wonder just how different it is from general OCB.

      By the way, thanks for recommending employeeengagement.ning. As it happens, I am already a member =)

  2. Here’s my definition of EE: “The individual’s investment of energy, skill, ability, eagerness, and desire in the work performed. Engagement normally includes ‘involvement’ and ‘commitment’ regarding the organization’s intent and purpose.”

    But let me also take a 90-degree tack on Stephen GIll’s “discretionary.”

    For the sanity of all concerned–especially those of us who support business’s EE–a standard definition is necessary. However, for the sake of every individual company (entrepreneur, small, medium or large corporation) that definition must have discretionary flexibility. The auto parts manufacturer views employee engagement through a quite different lens than the 5-physicians dermatology practice.

    Our definition should offer general categories to guide separate companies in sculpting their specific (and so,more meaningful) meaning of EE.

    • I see what you mean, Tim. No two industries or organizations are alike and employee engagement manifests itself differently in each. However, I am not sure that it is helpful to re-define engagement for each. This leads to mis-communication and general lack of conceptual clarity.

      Ultimately, it is not that the phenomenon of engagement changes. What changes is the behaviors it implies and the impact those behaviors will have on each organization. I think if practitioners and academics focus on the variability in these outcomes, decision-makers will have clearer understanding of what we mean and what they can gain.

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