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.