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Engagement special: Veronica Hope-Hailey on defining engagement

If one adopts a general definition of employee engagement as employees giving additional, discretionary effort at work, what’s not to like? Engagement can drive innovation and performance – essential if we are to kick-start the economy back into growth.

However, from an academic perspective, the concept of 'engagement' is a little tricky. Employee engagement is used as an umbrella term covering a variety of inputs and outcomes. In fact, it's a bit like a smorgasbord: a meal comprising multiple dishes of foods with no fixed rules as to which ones need to be included.

Some organisations highlight the importance of certain drivers of employee engagement - for example, trust or justice or line management support - while others might emphasise meaningful work, job satisfaction, understanding of the general business strategy of the organisation and so on.

The breadth of the engagement concept makes the term difficult to work with for some of my academic colleagues. They ask "How can you conduct useful, quantifiable research around the link between engagement and performance when we are all talking about different things within one broad heading?" And many of us might conclude employee engagement has just replaced the old idea of employee relations, and is a 21st century label for a timeless management problem: how to get people to give their best at work.

Yet others argue the strength of engagement as an ideal lies precisely in its universal appeal for more management attention to be given to workplace relations. With trends like the end of deference to senior managers, the crisis of trust and the competitive threat from workforces in Asia, we can't afford to tolerate indifferent people management. The decline of trade unions means that managers have to reach out and tackle these issues directly for themselves. A new name gives fresh impetus to solving an old problem.

That's why David MacLeod and Nita Clarke stress that Engage for Success, founded on their 2009 report Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance through Employee Engagement, is a movement. This movement seeks to bring the agenda of workplace relations centre stage. Its supporters have generated some practical management thinking that can help UK enterprises develop their people management capability. The movement must be answering a need, or it would not result in so many self-managed groups meeting around the country.

But exactly what management action should an organisation take? Certainly, there are a few universal areas: attention to employee voice, developing a compelling strategic narrative, ensuring line manager support and paying attention to the integrity of organisations and leaders.

However, I know from my own research that what motivates an R & D scientist to deliver high performance is very different from the actions that will motivate a call centre worker. Also, some organisations prioritise the generation of 'work engagement' - being totally absorbed in one's job - while others battling to retain staff are more concerned with 'organisation engagement', affective commitment to an employer. And from research we have conducted in the UK, the Netherlands, India and China, we know the drivers for engagement of people working for the same corporations will vary according to the country they're in and even the region of that country.

So, context and culture matter. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve with your strategy. To lift performance, HR and business managers have to move away from buying into simple universal recipes, and move towards methodologies that seek to understand the needs of different groups in a workforce at different times and in different places.

Developing employee engagement is not a science - it's a judgement call.

Veronica Hope Hailey (pictured) is professor of strategy and HRM, and head of the strategic and international management group at the University of Bath's School of Management. She is on the engagement task force.