Employee engagement has been an increasingly important part of management theory over the past twenty years. There is enough talk about it, enough different ideas in the mix, and enough examples of both good and bad practice, that understanding of employee engagement has become increasingly vague. But clarity is needed when considering how to successfully apply any approach, and that is as true here as with any other aspect of management.

Forms of Engagement

When we talk about engagement, we’re usually referring to the involvement, commitment and enthusiasm of employees for their work, and the ways that businesses encourage this. Achieving this is an emotional process towards developing positive feelings about doing a good job.

But that emotional engagement can be affected by other forms of engagement. Intellectual engagement, thinking hard about a job and how to best do it, adds to the feeling of satisfaction, as well as creating positive outcomes in improved working practices. Social engagement with others in the workplace creates the bonds that allow employees to feel secure and supported. [i]

Layers of Engagement

Engagement can be thought about as having several layers. At the core lie those positive feelings – pride in the work, loyalty to the organization, commitment to getting things done. These are what we have to encourage, but they can’t be directly seen and measured. There are no microscopes for measuring the contents of an employee’s mind.

An engaged attitude leads to engaged behaviour – going above and beyond to complete a piece of work, staying focussed through the day, selling the company when talking to others. This is something you can see but that’s hard to measure. It’s the mechanism that turns feelings of engagement into positive outcomes.

And lastly are those outcomes of engagement. Though many would consider the feeling of engagement to be worth seeking in itself, these are the measurable benefits, the bottom line factors that show a successful company. [ii] Employees who feel engaged are more productive, less likely to leave the organization, and less likely to suffer workplace accidents. [iii]

Affecting Employee Engagement

Employee engagement can’t be forced from above. It is about creating an environment in which the employee feels that the organization is engaging positively with them, and so chooses to commit more firmly to the organization. Employees engage themselves.

Trusting employees is an important part of engagement. By allowing them greater responsibility, you give them a greater feeling of control over their work. This also allows intellectual engagement, as the employee is given space in which to improve their own ways of working, to their benefit and that of the organization.

Communication is also key. Showing employees a corporate ethos, what their organization stands for and is trying to achieve, and how they fit into that.

It’s important to measure and celebrate achievements, but not to over do this. If employees feel that they are constantly measured, and so implicitly judged, but that this never leads to change, then they will become dispirited and disengaged. It is important to show that the organization is also engaged in, and committed to, achieving its own goals and objectives.

And all of this must be done in a genuine fashion. If an organization isn’t really committed to engaging and empowering employees then, sooner or later, they will see through the charade. The air of hypocrisy will do more damage than any initial lack of engagement ever did.