Evidence For The Causes And Consequences Of Work Engagement

April 11, 2011

The evidence for work engagement got a big boost from a study just published in Personnel Psychology (full citation at the end of this post). The authors first defined what engagement is and is not, identified several key antecedents and consequences, and then tested their model in a meta-analysis of 200 previously published studies of six different measures of engagement that met their criteria.

I was disappointed that the authors did not provide a concise definition of engagement. In their two page definition of engagement (darn academics), they do identify two characteristics that must be present in any valid approach to work engagement (pp. 91- 94):

1.     Engagement should refer to a psychological connection with the performance of work tasks rather than features of the job or organization. “Thus, a measure such as the Gallup Workplace Audit does not conform to this conceptualization because it refers to work conditions not the work task” (p. 91). Did you catch that? Gallup does NOT measure engagement – something I’ve stated here previously.

2.     Engagement involves the simultaneous and holistic self-investment of physical, emotional, and cognitive resources to work. Engaged folks experience a connection with their work on multiple levels.

The results of the meta-analysis first showed that work engagement predicts work performance over and above job satisfaction and organizational commitment – the two most consistent predictors of performance. The effect of engagement beyond satisfaction and commitment is not large, but it is significant.

Both characteristics of the job and characteristics of the individual are significant predictors of work engagement. The characteristics of the job that enhance engagement are task variety and task significance, and the characteristics of the individual are conscientiousness and positive affect. An interesting finding of the study was that autonomy, feedback, and transformational leadership have little effect on employee engagement.

Good quality evidence is mounting that work engagement does matter. Please understand that this conclusion is only valid if you have defined and measured engagement correctly. There are a lot of very popular measures of engagement being peddled by consultants (e.g. Gallup) that cannot claim support from this evidence. And please keep in mind that if engagement is not your cup of tea, this research confirmed once again that good old employee satisfaction and commitment are still some of the best drivers of employee performance.

If you want engaged employees at your workplace, you must first assume responsibility for providing jobs that give employees the opportunity to perform a variety of tasks that they perceive to be meaningful. It’s very difficult for employees to be engaged when their jobs are mundane and they have not been shown how what they do really matters. With good jobs in place, now hire conscientious and positive employees. Please don’t miss the fact that unless and until you make informed decisions as a manager, employee engagement will remain elusive.

Full citation: Christian, M.S., Garza, A.S., & Slaughter, J.E. (2011) Work engagement: A quantitative review and test of its relations with task and contextual performance. Personnel Psychology, 64: 89-136.

Related Posts:

Engagement Soup

Are We Engaged Yet?

Respectful Engagement

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Comments (19)

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  1. Beth says:

    Hi Bret,

    This is a great summary of very significant findings. I’ve been frustrated with the way “engagement” has become a buzzword excuse for persuading/strong-arming/mandating workers to act happy about business changes that they don’t really embrace. In some circles, I feel this has fostered a new justification of intimidation. Over the past decade, this corrupted use of a great concept (engagement) has led to some pretty cynical, dehumanized, and manipulative management tactics.

    I work in a service business, writing training, and as we measure the effectiveness of new initiatives, it has a great deal to do with how much real engagement is embedded into the picture; phone rah-rah may foster compliance on the surface, but long-term it has the reverse effect of causing an increasingly toxic workplace culture, resulting in employees’ emotional disengagement, an increased negative grapevine, and (worst of all) a grass-is-greener exodus of the best talent.

    To get real engagement from a client-facing workforce, management needs to make decisions that yield a positive answer 3 questions, in this order:
    – What’s in it for me?
    – What’s in it for the customer?
    – What’s in it for the business?

    Too often, business policies are dictated only by question # 3, and service workers are placed in a position of divided loyalties. This leads to distraction, disappointment, and disempowerment, all of which lead to detachment.

    If business decision-makers would only consciously craft their policies (and then their internal communications) to address all these 3 questions with solid, non-scamming answers, then they would build their “trust fund” with their employees, who would gradually consider themselves more enlightened, encouraged, and empowered, leading to higher engagement across the board.

    All it takes is an ego step-down, a very slight priority shift, the creation of another self-check or two in the decision-making process, and the will to defend the resulting choices to other stakeholders.

    This study’s evidence juices up that whole process, especially the last part.

    Thanks, Bret, for continuing to provide approachable and relevant input. It both informs and validates, not only my daily projects at work, but also my continuing values in the workplace.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Oooh, more great advice, Beth! And thank YOU for continuing to add significant value to our conversations here. Bret

    Valerie Iravani Reply:

    AMEN! I’m tired of hearing the buzz word, talking to managers about what engagement actually means, but most managers (and executives) just ignore this impendingly more important issue.

    Great post!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It has become a buzz word, Valerie. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  2. Jim Taggart says:

    This is very helpful, Bret, on a topic that continues to be amorphous (and elusive as you state). Are you a member of the Employee Engagement Network? If not, I’ll post a link to your site since this post provides excellent information.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It is messy, Jim, but getting better. Not a member of the EEN 🙂 Please feel free to post the link – thanks! Bret

  3. Jim Taggart says:

    Reflecting on Beth’s excellent comments, what struck me as an afterthought is what I’ll call the guilt complex of not being engaged. In other words, if you’re not engaged as an employee then you’ve obviously done something wrong or are just not a motivated (read lazy) individual. The franchise of “Employee Engagement” has now spread far and wide, with too many organizations approaching it through a very narrow lens.

    Beth Reply:

    Hear, hear, Jim! And when employees feel such a guilt complex due to disconnects between an intimidating phony rah-rah company line and their personal integrity, it can lead to unarticulated internal conflicts. This state of ucertainty can act as static interference across the whole bandwidth of a normally solid employee’s performance. It can cause self-doubt, which promotes hesitancy, which results in inconsistent behaviors — all of which can then lead to defensiveness, cynicism, and a cascade of other victimized feelings (if suppressed) or acting-out behaviors (if not).

    In a service business, the end result is a firestorm of ineffectiveness that is nearly equal to outright sabotage in its power to alienate clients. And unfortunately those clients will NOT feel any guilt at all when they reach out to a competitor next time they need your service!

    Bottom line: I believe that employee engagement is a gift to employers, not a given. Total worker buy-in is not a product that can be manufactured from calculated components on a propaganda assembly line. It’s a crop that bosses can only try to propagate by first sowing their own engagement in their employees’ well-being — by showing a consistent commitment to trustworthy behavior, sound decision-making, and treating people right.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Once again, well said, Beth! Thanks to you and Jim for making such a valuable contribution to the conversation! Bret

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Interesting point, Jim. I’ve never felt guilty, more disappointed and distressed. Maybe why many conceptualize burnout as the opposite of engagement. Thanks! bret

  4. davidburkus says:

    I’m curious, if they didn’t use Gallup’s stuff…how’d they get enough data to do a meta-analysis? I guess I’ll have to read the study.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Are you being facetious? ! I know it might be hard to believe, but there is fortunately a LOT more to engagement than Gallup 🙂 Thanks! Bret

    davidburkus Reply:

    No I mean: my understanding of how conducting meta-analysis works is that there would have to be 200 studies that all used the same engagement measurement in order to do the research. I’m unaware of any measure that has 200 studies behind it…Gallup probably comes closest in terms of popularity.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I’m not a meta-analysis expert, but I’m pretty sure you can use different measures. Bret

    davidburkus Reply:

    Huh. Not an expert either…not even an expert in research (yet?). I’m looking forward to digging into the article to find out though.

  5. Lisa Kimball says:

    Thanks for an important reference. One thing I think is important to think about around engagement is the profound difference between buy-in – which is what most organizations seek from engagement – and OWNERSHIP.


    And ownership is NOT the same as buy-in……..

    There is an important distinction between ownership and buy-in. These words are not interchangeable and they are not synonymous.

    Ownership is when you own or share the ownership of an idea, a decision, an action plan, a choice; it means that you have participated in its development, that it is your choice freely made.

    Buy-in is the exact opposite: someone else, or some group of people, has done the development, the thinking and the deciding, and now they have to convince you to come along and buy-in to their idea — so that you can implement their idea without your involvement in the initial conversations or resulting decisions. Aiming for buy-in creates lukewarm, pallid implementation and mediocre results.

    When it comes to solving intractable socio-technical behavioral problems in systems the notion of buy-in is just not useful – people in the system need to own the new behaviors.

    Anytime you or someone around you thinks or talks about buy-in beware! It is a danger signal telling you that your development and implementation process is missing the essential ingredient of involving all who should be.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Lisa. Love what you are saying about the difference between ownership and buy-in. Buy-in is a dependent posture, while ownership is one of interdependence. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  6. Jim Taggart says:

    I like how Lisa expresses the important distinction between buy-in (which is thrown around indiscriminately in organizatons) and ownership. I’d like to suggest that self-empowerment flows out of ownership. Buy-in is more oriented towards the notion of management “empowering” employees (something with which I strongly disagree). It’s no wonder that people feel disconnected from their organizations, displaying a lack of trust and confidence in senior management.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for adding to Lisa’s points, Jim! Bret