The “Wildfire” That Is Employee Engagement

Employee engagement initiatives have spread like wildfire. They have become incredibly popular, and by all accounts, their presence as organizational interventions seems to be expanding.What we know about wildfire is that it is "necessary” for forests, but also a threat to them, so strong policies and management are imperative to make sure wildfire is working for our forests instead of against them.1" The same can be said of the work involved in employee engagement: It is necessary for organizations to grow; however, gone unchecked or developed in an incomplete manner, engagement work can be confusing and lead to problems. We argue that it is imperative to assure that employee engagement-related programs are working for our organizations instead of against them. How do we accomplish this goal? 

Accomplishing Employee Engagement Goals

We suggest that the key to making employee engagement positive for an organization is to identify and direct the role-related behaviors in which employees are engaged.Through a deep analysis of the literature on employee engagement we conclude that engagement programs can enhance firm performance when the energy generated from engagement is directed on the path needed to achieve organizational goals. Engagement, purely for the sake of being "engaged" may lead to unanticipated results in the same way that wildfire, gone unchecked, can result in unexpected and unwanted consequences. Thus, in this report, we focus on answering the "engaged in what" question to ensure that employee engagement is managed in ways that meet the needs of the organizations that implement these programs.

What’s Covered Here?

In many ways, the arguments we will introduce support the concept of the employee value proposition, although we are taking it one step further to investigate the employee value exchange proposition or what the employees receive in exchange for what they give. We apply role theory, and specifically, the application of five work-related roles to help organizations understand how to take their employee engagement plans to a higher and more productive level. In order to do this, we find that effective use of rewards and recognition can provide the links between engagement, roles, value exchange relationships and performance. Readers of this report will learn the state of employee engagement, both the known and unknown, as well as be introduced to a new paradigm for examining engagement. In addition, we present a Case Study of the world-renowned health care organization, Cleveland Clinic. They are an exceptional example of focusing engagement energy on the specific role-based behaviors needed from employees in order for the organization to achieve its strategic goals. The Clinic's purposeful and innovative applications of several types of rewards and recognition systems has helped them through their journey. The Cleveland Clinic story will be examined in some detail, followed by suggestions for organizations that are trying to use strategic engagement.

Why Another Report On Employee Engagement?

After reviewing a sampling of the employee engagement readings, one may wonder why an additional piece of work is necessary. Most of the literature on this topic extols the positive achievements made in the area. And while these accomplishments are certainly worth examination, it is important to note that inaddition to the numerous claims of engagement improving organizational performance, there are still many unanswered questions and several areas where new knowledge is warranted:

  • There is no agreed-upon definition of employee engagement. (Bakker, 2011; Gruman & Saks, 2011; Shuck & Wollard, 2010). At present, consulting firms, as well as many individual organizations, all have their own definitions of the term. How can learning be accumulated if what we are studying in each business is somehow different?
  • It has been suggested that engagement, along with other attitude variables, may be tapping into an overall "mega construct" that encompasses all that is good about organization behavior and management. Per Harter and Schmidt (2008): "...many of the traditional attitudinal variables (including satisfaction, commitment, engagement, and well-researched composites of work conditions) are, in fact, measuring the same general construct." Although this type of approach may be appealing, it leads to many problems because the claim does not hold up under scrutiny. For example, one can be very satisfied with a job that pays well but be not at all committed to the organization. Thus, if the attitudes are swinging in different directions, it would be difficult for them to be part of the same overall construct.
  • Researchers do not agree on what predicts employee engagement. (Saks, 2006; Mercer, 2007; Bates, 2004). This may be due, in part, to the lack of a concrete definition of engagement. How can one study predictors of a phenomenon that lacks an agreed-upon definition?
  • The research on employee engagement, although widely cited, is troubling as much of the work is not causal but correlational. This means that researchers cannot attribute changes in engagement to changes in performance; the opposite may be true. High performance may lead to high engagement survey scores (not vice-versa). Also, with study after study using different definitions of what employee engagement is, even with the best science and most robust research methodology, it is difficult to bring results together.

This is all to say that although the news reports tremendous successes around employee engagement initiatives, there is still more work to be done in order to understand the rules of engagement. We need to more clearly know the conditions under which engagement, in each form, works or does not work. In this report, we provide a road map for improving the broad area of work that falls under the employee engagement label. In the next sections of the report, we will answer the following questions:

  • Engaged in what? The black box of employee engagement must be clearly articulated to take this concept to the next level. In order to address this issue, we introduce a roles-based approach to employee engagement. By focusing on five distinct roles (e.g. core job role, innovator or entrepreneur role, career or learner role, organizational member role, and team member role), organizations will have language necessary to link engagement to bottom-line business strategy.
  • So what and the signaling role of rewards and recognition. If employees become engaged, what's in it for them? With all the talk about engagement, the subject of the link between rewards and engagement seems to have taken a back seat on the journey. However, employees get important clues about what's really important from the design of the rewards and recognition system. Thus, a business can have a robust and stellar engagement plan in place, but if the rewards and recognition system is sending conflicting signals about the behaviors employees should be engaged in performing, then the engagement plan may be in jeopardy. The ideal link between rewards, recognition, engagement and strategy needs to be understood in more detail.

Moving from Engagement to Performance

In this report, we first lay the groundwork for understanding the state of employee engagement today by summarizing the academic and practitioner literatures. After reviewing what is known, we provide a theoretical foundation for moving engagement to the next level. By using role-theory, we demonstrate how the current work on engagement is limited. We then specify the opportunities that can be pursued to take a more rigorous approach to the link between engagement and performance. Lastly, we will specifically discuss how rewards and recognition systems can be the lynch pin between engagement and firm performance. Incentives and recognition send signals, and those communication vehicles can focus engagement in the right direction to drive individual, team and firm performance.

History of Employee Engagement

Widely cited as the beginning of the concept of employee engagement is the work done by Kahn in 1990. He drew out the concept of engagement from his first study of counselors at a summer camp in the West Indies and at an architectural firm in the northeastern United States. He studied both organizations in an effort to understand the phenomenon of bringing the self to work. The architecture firm was hierarchical and formal, while the summer camp was very loosely organized and temporary. What is interesting about Kahn's early work is that the core theoretical underpinnings focused on bringing oneself to work. He started out by using the theory of roles and self at work, and by hypothesizing that people would be more engaged when they could bring more of themselves to the job. In his summer camp study, for example, a scuba dive instructor was much more engaged when he could talk about his passion for the ocean during his scuba class. Engagement, as originally defined, was all about bringing one's personal skills and interests to the job. Since this original conceptualization of employee engagement, however, the work has changed to be less focused on the individual bringing his/her own interests and preferred roles to work and more about making the organization and work the central focus. Engagement now seems to be about going "above and beyond," and it is not so much about helping employees bring their multiple skills and selves to the organization. It may seem like a small definitional concern, but the difference in meaning and in how engagement has been operationalized may very well be the reason that some engagement programs are running into problems.

Thus, the movement away from the original concept of employee engagement may be an important lens to use as we go forward in this report. As we explore the "engaged in what" question and attempt to link new engagement concepts with this original notion of bringing one's whole self to work, we also will be suggesting that the "so what" issue be brought to the forefront of engagement work. If employees do go “above and beyond,” how is this defined and what is in it for them?

In order to understand how employee engagement has evolved from its roots in the early 1990s through today, we will explore five topics: (1) the timeline or history of employee engagement; (2) the definition of employee engagement; (3) the determinants of employee engagement; (4) the measurement of employee engagement; and lastly (5) the outcomes of employee engagement. Many other authors have done complete literature reviews on engagement, and we will include references to their work. Our goal is to provide the reader with a thorough understanding of how employee engagement has been conceptualized, studied and applied in organizations with the purpose of moving employee engagement to the next level. We are not proposing this is an all-inclusive review but a representative sampling.

Timeline or History of Employee Engagement

Through his empirical research, Kahn derived the notion of the “preferred self.” He believed that people had different dimensions of themselves that they would choose to use in different circumstances (Kahn, 1990). Although much of today's research refers to Kahn’s work as the theoretical underpinning of employee engagement, it would not be until the late 1990s and 2001 that the theoretical ideas received significant support.

 Two groups brought employee engagement to the forefront of business: researchers who study burnout, and the consulting work initially done largely by Gallup. In relation to the first group, Kahn's original engagement work was revitalized by Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter who stated that engagement was the antithesis to burnout (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). It is interesting to note that the phenomenon of burnout was receiving quite a bit of attention in 2001, and it is at this time that the economy experienced some significant changes. Per the Washington Economic Trends research brief number 15 (published in July, 2002): "The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has officially declared that the national recession started in 2001, ending a 10-year expansion of the U.S economy."

Over the next decade challenging economic conditions put more stress on individuals and organizations and the effects of 9/11 and the dotcom bubble burst likely also contributed (Ketter, 2008). Layoffs, resistance to hiring even when needed, concern over political and social problems, a visible threat of homeland terrorism and more led individual citizens to extraordinary circumstances. Businesses turned financially conservative, and as part of the new reality they were facing, getting more productivity from employees was seen as a necessary part of doing business. Jobs were not abundant, so holding back on pay increases, asking employees to work more hours, and providing fewer benefits and other types of financial incentives became common. Watson Wyatt (2009) reported in 2009 that 56% of the organizations they polled had made hiring freezes, 15% had made salary reductions, and 56% had made salary freezes. Employees were not leaving their employers because there were no alternative jobs to obtain.

At the same time, as the economy presented significant challenges to organizations, Gallup, in 1999, published the book by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman titled First Break all the Rules. This book introduced the world to the Q12, which were Gallup's employee engagement survey questions. The book, presentations, the 12 survey questions and the training associated with it expanded exponentially during this period of time after the book was published. The promise of employee engagement spread quickly, with only a few people questioning the body of work, primarily skeptical about how engagement was different from other bodies of established research. For example, Dr. Edward Lawler, from the University of Southern California, published a comment on the work in a Forbes article: "It's (engagement is) creative repackaging of stuff that's been around for a long time-- one of the most successful marketing efforts of the last decade started by Gallup."

From the same Forbes piece, Randall MacDonald, who was IBM's head of personnel, was quoted as saying: "This stuff makes a lot of consultants very rich and helps authors get published ... soon we'll be talking about marrying all of those employees to whom we've engaged." The naysayers, however, have been far and few between. In general, employee engagement became a successful and huge industry. Gallup alone was able to build a $50 million business in just a few short years (Jones, 2002). Figure 1 lays out a visual timeline of the early employee engagement work.

Gallup was not alone in the employee engagement survey data collection and consulting work. Rather quickly other firms such as Towers Watson, Hewitt, Hay Group, the Corporate Leadership Council, Corporate Executive Board and a number of firms that grew out of Gallup (e.g. Kenexa) all moved to add employee engagement to their practices. It was not until later, however, that the topic cycled back to the academic arena. Some of the academic work grew out of consulting firms' data sets (e.g. William Macey and Benjamin Schneider work for Valtera, an employee engagement survey vendor later bought by the Corporate Executive Board). The timeline shows that employee engagement work evolved similar to how other areas in the human resource management field have progressed (e.g. selection, training). Ultimately, a cycle is created, as organizations use academic knowledge to improve their businesses, and then, data collected by consultants or business professionals are utilized for research. Thus, in many timelines one will see an intermixing of research reports done by consultants and by academics. However, the work on engagement has been, unlike work in other areas, dominated by the consulting firms. In addition to the consultants, research has been done and reported by several professional associations. Examples include the work done by the Conference Board, Society for Human Resource Management and Melcrum.

As practitioners began to learn about employee engagement and the tie to surveys, they also began to take advantage of the technological leaps in the survey market. Firms like Survey Monkey and Zoomerang provided organizations with inexpensive and often free surveys. In addition, office software has started to come with survey technology as part of their overall software packages (Microsoft Share Point for example). Technology vendors put the ability to do surveys in the hands of just about anyone, and as a result, any practitioner could read a book or article that describes engagement, conduct their own survey and "voila" become an employee engagement expert. In recent years engagement has taken a significant step forward in relevance for many organizations. The work by several consulting firms from the late 1990s through today promotes ongoing surveys of employee engagement, action planning on employee engagement, training about employee engagement and linking engagement scores to executive scorecards. Boards of directors are asking about employee engagement scores as one method of understanding the CEO and leadership team's performance. Gallup has expanded into the healthcare industry and claims “hospitals with higher levels of employee engagement also receive higher HCAHPS2 domain performance” (Gallup Consulting, 2009). Likely organizations from all industries will soon be utilizing some version of industry benchmarking and standards, if they have not already done so. What we learn from the timeline is that engagement started in the 1990s, and it has quickly grown and spread. It is a topic of interest to many and used by even more. Next, we go into a core issue of a seemingly obvious question associated with employee engagement: What is it?

Engaged in What? Part 2 - Defining Engagement

Engaged in What? Part 3 - Measuring Engagement

Engaged in What? Part 4 - Using Role Theory to Link Engagement and Performance

Engaged in What? Part 5 - Cleveland Clinic Case Study