In the previous article (Part 1), I interviewed Dr. Jamie Gruman, who shared his research on the employee on-boarding process, what employers can easily do to help employees feel welcome and more quickly become contributing members of their organizations.
What Do We Really Know About Employee Engagement? Interview with Dr. Jamie Gruman (Part 2)
Natalie: In 2014 you published an article, “What do we really know about employee engagement?” I’m wondering if we might have a conversation about that topic.
Dr. Gruman: Sure. Every company today has an engagement survey. When I give talks on this topic, what I’m fond of saying is, despite the fact that they all have engagement surveys, nobody knows what engagement is. If you look at the items on these surveys, they measure things like, “Are you happy with your job? Do you like working here? Would you stay here if you had employment elsewhere?” Those don’t measure engagement. The very concept of engagement has to be something that’s different from concepts that we already have if the concept of engagement is to be valuable.
Asking people things like, “Are you happy here,” that measures their job satisfaction. We’ve had measures to assess job satisfaction for decades. We don’t need to ask them about job satisfaction to measure their engagement. Asking them if they feel affiliated with the organization, that measures organizational commitment. That’s not engagement, and we don’t want to include measures of commitment if we’re trying to measure engagement because we already know about commitment. It’s not adding any value to our understanding of organizational life if we’re confusing commitment with engagement. Also, what very common is we ask people, do they go the extra mile at work? That’s what’s called organizational citizenship behaviors or extra role behaviors. Again, that’s a separate concept.
Engagement was introduced in 1990 by (William) Kahn, in his dissertation research where he defined engagement as the extent to which people bring their full selves to their role of performance. If you’re bringing your full identity, your views, your ideas, your sense of self to your job. You’re investing yourself fully in your job that’s what engagement is. That’s something new and different. It’s not just old wine in a new bottle. It’s not just taking constructs we already have and repackaging them into this new thing that we’re now calling engagement, but it’s really nothing new, which is what most organizations are doing.
They’re not measuring anything new and different. They’re just giving a new name to things they’ve been measuring for decades, forever really. If they want to measure engagement, they have to ask questions around things like, “Do you invest your full self in your role? Does the work environment allow to bring your values and your identity, your personality, fully into your role?” That’s what organizations are not doing. In this paper that we wrote1, what do we really know about employee engagement? We discuss this at length, and we discuss solutions, how organizations can properly measure engagement and different levels at which engagement can exist, and the value of doing that.
Natalie: Is there a scale that can be used to get at the right questions?
Dr. Gruman: There are scales that exist that can get at the right questions. We’re also in the process of building another scale that measures psychological presence. This idea that you’re bringing your full self to your role, another term for that is psychological presence. We’re in the process of building a scale to measure that as well. It really is a new and different and valuable piece of the puzzle of what’s going to make organizations effective.
The example I like to give to put this in context is: Think of your relationship you have with your husband or your wife. Would you want your husband or wife to be satisfied with your relationship? They’re okay. If you ask them, “Are you satisfied?” Yeah, I’m satisfied. It’s not great, but I’m satisfied.” That’s not great. That’s not the kind of employee you want. That’s not the kind of relationship you want. If you ask, “Are you committed?” “Yeah, I’m committed. I fell out of love a few years ago, but I’m committed.” That’s not what you want either. If you ask people, “Are you engaged in your relationship?” “Yeah, I am. I think about this person all the time. I do things for the other person. I’m fully invested in the relationship.” That’s what we want with our employees. We want engaged employees.
Yes, there are tools to measure it. There are some controversies around the tools that exist. That’s part of the reason we’re in the process of building a new tool to measure psychological presence, to really be able to tap into whether employees are engaged or not.
Natalie: What an important tool to bring to the workplace. Before we wrap-up Jamie, are there a couple recommendations you would have to help employers improve engagement within their organizations?
Dr. Gruman: Yes. In the original research that Kahn2 did, he looked at the antecedence of engagement. There are three of them. They are psychological meaningfulness, psychological availability, and psychological safety. I’ll quickly touch on three. What they mean is: psychological meaningfulness refers to whether people feel like they’re getting an investment – a return on their investment of their self in the role. When they come to work, are they getting something out of it? Do they feel that the work is meaningful? Are they making a difference? Every leader in every organization, by virtue of the way they act and speak, the issues that they bring up, those they ignore, can help people feel that the work is more or less meaningful. There are ways to help people become engaged by increasing the degree to which they feel the work is meaningful.
The second is psychological safety. People will not bring their full selves to their roles if they’re afraid to do so. Leaders need to create cultures, environments where people feel that it’s safe to bring their full selves to their role. When people speak up and have ideas, do you shut them down? Or did you ignore their idea? If that happens, people learn to ignore their own ideas and shut down and they don’t become engaged.
The third is psychological availability, which means, do people have the resources to engage themselves? One of the things that leaders need to do is they can help people build things like their psychological capital. Which is their hope, optimism, confidence, and resilience, which helps them have the resources they need to fully invest themselves in their role.
Natalie: Where do you think we’ll be in five years – what kind of a conversation will we be having about engagement?
Dr. Gruman: That’s a good question. There are three possibilities. One, we’ll be nowhere. Organizations will keep doing what they’re doing. When I give talks on this to senior executives and I explain to them the reality of engagement, they’re interested and they want to talk to me about. If you’re a senior vice president of human resources and you just spent 15 years trying to build an infrastructure in your company that is not based on this definition of engagement that I have, then you’ve got to dismantle a lot of things. Even though a lot of people see the value of doing it, they don’t want to do anything, because it’s too tough. One thing that may happen is nothing.
One thing that may happen is, as the idea of this real measure of engagement. This real idea and the value of this approach to engagement catches on we’ll start seeing changes in organizations. The other possibility is that the idea of engagement will fade. It’s been popular for a long time and organizations like to jump on bandwagons. They like to do new and different things, so engagement may become replaced with resilience, which is the hot topic now. Maybe people will stop measuring engagement and start focusing on other things like resilience. Who knows? Wherever it goes, I’ll be there.
Natalie: Number two and three seem like more positive, optimistic options for our collective future.
Dr. Gruman: They do. You’re right.
Natalie: In closing out, if people want to learn a little bit more about the work that you do, where can they find that, and where can they find you, Jamie?
Dr. Gruman: The easiest thing would just be to Google me, Jamie Gruman. A lot of my stuff will come up. You’ll find my contact information. You can go onto Google Scholar, to find some of the papers that I’ve written.
Natalie: Thank you so much for your time. I look forward to seeing your two scales published and seeing how they contribute to the future of work.
Dr. Gruman: Okay. Ciao.
- Most workplace engagement surveys are missing the mark by measuring other workplace variables such as job satisfaction or organizational citizenship behaviours (e.g. organizational commitment), rather than workplace engagement, which we can define as: the extent to which people bring their full selves to their work (cognitively, emotionally and physically).
- Asking employees questions such as “does your work environment allow you to bring your values, your identity, your personality fully into your role?” will get to the heart of whether we are truly engaging our workforce.
- Research has shown that the precursors to engagement are employees who believe that: 1. Their work has meaning (psychological meaningfulness), 2. They can freely share their thoughts and ideas (psychological safety), 3. They have the physical, emotional and psychological resources to do their work (psychological availability).
While we have some significant work to do in this area of employee engagement, we have the resources and acumen to solve this problem. We simply have to ask the right questions and be prepared for the answers.
- Alan M. Saks and Jamie A. Gruman. What Do We Really Know About Employee Engagement? Human Resource Development Quarterly Volume 25,Issue 2,pages 155–182, Summer 2014 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hrdq.21187/abstract)
- W.A. Kahn, Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal,33,692–724, 1990.