The understanding of employee engagement, which has been studied extensively in recent years, has taken on new urgency in the current labor market environment. Organizations that do not understand the fundamentals of employee engagement may find themselves dealing with unmotivated, underappreciated, and dissatisfied employees who may be spending their free time searching for better opportunities. Two recent studies seek to bring order to the vast research on engagement, and to explore the role of employee engagement in the formation of the employee-organization relationship. For purposes of this overview, the definition of the “Utrecht Group” (Wimar Schaufeli and associates) will be used:
A positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind characterized by a sense of vigor towards, dedication to, and absorption in work activities.
The first study, The Meaning, Antecedents and Outcomes of Employee Engagement: A Narrative Synthesis (Bailey et al., 2017), a literature review is performed to answer three questions:
- How has engagement been defined and theorized?
- What antecedents are associated with engagement?
- What evidence is there that engagement is associated with employee morale and performance?
The study begins with a master class in structuring and executing a literature review. Anyone familiar with research in the social sciences will have come across many literature reviews–but this article is unique in the level of description and analysis of the research and review process that is provided. Key to the process is the narrative evidence synthesis method of planning, structured search, evaluation of material against agreed eligibility criteria, analysis and thematic coding, and finally reporting. An initial search resulting in 712,550 records was reduced through this process to 38 items with theoretical/conceptual models; 172 empirical papers; and 4 meta-analyses. The following is a brief recap of discoveries of this analysis.
How has engagement been defined and theorized?
The authors found six headings into which study definitions could be grouped:
- Personal role engagement: the individual’s cognitive, emotional, and physical expression of the authentic self at work;
- Work task or job engagement: the Utrecht Group’s definition of engagement quoted above;
- Multidimensional engagement: a distinct and unique construct consisting of cognitive, emotional and behavioral components that are associated with individual role performance;
- Engagement as a composite attitudinal and behavioral construct: research featuring measures of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement;
- Engagement as management practice: an emerging field of inquiry with no firmly established definition or conceptualization; and
- Self-engagement with performance: defined as the individual’s sense of responsibility for and commitment towards performance.
The predominant definition of engagement is that of the Utrecht Group (noted above) which was adopted in 86% of the studies reviewed. After the definitions, five principal theoretical frameworks utilized in the studies were discussed:
- The Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) framework was utilized in 38% of the studies reviewed. The JD-R framework distinguishes between resources (job-related or personal) and job demands. Resources energize employees and lead to engagement, while demands which require additional effort can lead to disengagement, and thus, negative outcomes.
- In Social Exchange Theory (SET) relationships between employees and employers are based on reciprocity: when employees feel they are being treated well, they respond with higher levels of engagement.
- Conservation of Resources theory suggests that employee engagement can be driven by the provision of resources;
- Broaden-and build theory argues that engagement can occur when individuals experience positive emotions, which create the space for a broader range of thought-action repertoires; and finally,
- Kahn’s engagement theory, which is based on the premise that engagement is influenced by meaningfulness of work, psychological safety, and experienced availability.
Antecedents of Engagement
The authors reviewed 155 empirical studies of antecedents to engagement, and found five main headings:
- Individual Psychological States: the most studied attributes included self-efficacy, resilience, and personal resources were found to be positively associated with engagement.
- Experienced job-design-related factors: multiple studies showed positive associations between job resources (supervisory and colleague support, feedback, and autonomy) and engagement.
- Perceived Leadership and Management: multiple studies found a positive association between transformational leadership and engagement.
- Individual perceptions of organizational and team factors: perceived organizational support, organizational identification, and team-level climate and communication were shown to be positively associated with engagement.
- Organizational interventions or activities: some studies noted associations between training and development programs and engagement.
Outcomes of Engagement
The outcomes of engagement were explored under two headings, Performance and Morale. Not surprisingly, ample evidence exists in multiple studies demonstrating the positive relationship between engagement, better performance, and morale. The most critical conclusion of this meta-study is that evidence suggests that engagement is associated most strongly with job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Specific recommendations supported by the author’s analysis include:
- Job designs that allow for autonomy and feedback on performance;
- Ensuring that workers have sufficient and appropriate resources;
- Leadership that is positive and authentic; and
- Enhancing individual resilience and personal resources.
Furthermore, there is some limited evidence that interventions can positively impact engagement levels, and that there may be ways for employers to develop and enhance engagement. Evidence on this last point is limited, however, and it is hoped that interventions to improve engagement will be the focus of future studies.
In a future blog post, I’ll be recapping the findings from the Eldor and Vigoda-Gadot article noted below.
Bailey, C., Madden, A., Alfes, K., & Fletcher, L. (2017). The Meaning, Antecedents and Outcomes of Employee Engagement: A Narrative Synthesis. International Journal of Management Reviews, 19(1), 31–53. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijmr.12077
Eldor, L., & Vigoda-Gadot, E. (2017). The nature of employee engagement: rethinking the employee–organization relationship. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 28(3), 526–552. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2016.1180312