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Defining employee engagement: What does it mean to the experts?

Few seem able to agree on what engagement is or how to measure it. So we asked HR thinkers and practitioners for their definitions

  • For David MacLeod, co-chair of the Employee Engagement Task Force, “employee engagement is about creating conditions in which people willingly offer their full capability and develop their full potential”. On a more granular level Engage for Success defines four enablers of engagement: strong strategic narrative (“employees can relate their job to whatever we’re doing as an organisation and where it aspires to go”), engaging managers (“managers treat me like a human being”), employee voice (“the voices of the most junior travel to the most senior and vice versa”) and organisational integrity (“the values are consistent with the behaviour in the organisation”).
  • For Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, there are three dimensions to the concept: the “individual” dimension, which involves understanding and taking an interest in the welfare of employees; the degree to which the company “attends to the collective feeling in the organisation”; and an employee’s right to be engaged in big decisions. The latter “gets less attention” but is notable by its absence. “What makes society democratic is people’s participation and their sense that politicians are responsive. But if you don’t have the underpinning of formal democracy and rules you’re in danger of having a strategy that works for the good times but that can easily be put to one side when things get difficult,” he says.
  • “There’s three things we talk about in psychology on engagement – the hand, the head and the heart,” says Dan Cable, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. “So physically are you showing up? The head is: are you mindful of the goal? So you don’t just do processes, you think up better ways to get the outcomes you need. And the third thing is the heart. So are you making yourself emotionally available and do you genuinely care if customers are happy?”
  • “I think it’s when your personal values and the values of the organisation are aligned and they genuinely care about each other,” says Helen Mitchell, head of internal communications and engagement at Alzheimer’s Society. “It’s when the employee gives a damn about the organisation and what it’s trying to achieve and the organisation gives a damn about employees and enables them to be the best they can.”
  • There is a difference between people being engaged with their day-to-day work and with the organisation, highlights Dilys Robinson, principal associate of the Institute for Employment Studies. It’s engagement with the organisation where the “woolliness” seems to creep in. “Academics say organisation engagement is too difficult to research but we can research what drives people to be engaged with day-to-day work.”
  • There’s also a difference between individual engagement and team engagement, says Amy Armstrong, senior faculty at Ashridge, Hult International Business School. “Individual engagement is about ‘I have autonomy and opportunities to grow’,” she explains. “Team engagement is about the climate so ‘is it a trusting atmosphere where I feel I can speak up and have psychological safety?’”

Further reading

Is engagement fact or fiction?