The Definition of Employee Engagement

Kahn’s (1990) original conceptualization of the term of employee engagement was “the harnessing of organizational members’ selves to their work roles” (p. 694). As his work evolved, the term engagement seemed to have taken on a somewhat different lens. For example, Mercer’s “What’s Working” research (2007) define engagement as “a psychological state in which employees feel a vested interest in the company’s success and are both willing and motivated to perform to levels that exceed the stated job requirements.”

This second definition may or may not be an outcome of an employee bringing more of his/her self to work. In fact, we would argue that the idea of bringing more of the self to work has become lost, as the construct has evolved over time. This may be due to necessity, given that engagement work became very popular in the middle of a dramatic recession and political unrest. Organizations were laying people off while desperately trying to maintain or grow with a smaller workforce. Therefore, improving productivity of the same or less people was a critical goal for many leaders. They were less interested in helping employees become more fulfilled at work and more focused on survival. The nuance is important because employers were not asking employees to bring more of themselves and their interests to work; they were motivating employees to put more of themselves into the company. Thus, we speculate that Kahn's idea of engagement, focused on the employee being able to express him/herself at work, became somewhat fuzzy as the definition evolved. Simply put, having employees do things they want to do at work would not sell.

Another sample definition is provided by the Corporate Leadership Council (2004). They define engagement “as the extent to which employees commit to something or someone in their organization, how hard they work, and how long they stay as a result of that commitment” (p 3). This definition is not about the employee being able to do more than the core job and bringing other talent to work; it's about the employee working harder and staying with the company. Another definition is provided by Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes (2002) who say that engagement is the employee’s “involvement and satisfaction with as well as enthusiasm for work.” Table 1 illustrates how varied the definitions for employee engagement can be.

Definition of Engagement

Author(s), Year (sorted in chronological order)

The harnessing of organizational members’ selves to their work

roles; in engagement people employ and express themselves

physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances

Kahn (1990)

An energetic state of involvement with personally fulfilling

activities that enhance one’s sense of professional efficacy

(from burnout literature)

Leiter & Maslach (1998)

A persistent, positive affective-motivational state of fulfillment in

employees that is characterized by high levels of activation and


Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter (2001)

The individual’s involvement and satisfaction with as well as

enthusiasm for work

Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes (2002)

Employee engagement is the amount of “discretionary effort”, in

the form of extra time, brainpower or energy, that employees

exhibit at work

Towers Watson (2003)

The extent to which employees commit to something or

someone in their organization, [and] how hard they work and

how long they stay as a result of that commitment

Corporate Leadership Council (2004)

A positive attitude held by the employee towards the

organization and its values. An engaged employee is aware of

the business context, works with colleagues to improve

performance within the job for the benefit of the organization

Robinson, Perryman and Hayday (2004)

A distinct and unique construct that consists of cognitive,

emotional, and behavioral components that is associated with

individual role performance

Saks (2006)

Employee Engagement is a heightened emotional and

intellectual connection that an employee has for his/her job,

organization, manager, or co-workers that, in turn, influences

him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work

Gibbons (2006)

Employees are mentally and emotionally invested in their work

and in contributing to their employer’s success

Czarnowsky (2008)

The employee’s sense of purpose and focused energy that is

evident to others through the display of personal initiative,

adaptability, effort, and persistence directed toward the

organization’s goals.

Macey, Schneider, Barbera, & Young (2009)

Employee engagement encompasses three dimensions: rational

(how well employees understand their roles and

responsibilities), emotional (how much passion they bring to

their work and their organizations), and motivational (how willing

they are to invest discretionary effort to perform their roles well)

Towers Watson (2009)

The extent to which employees share their company’s values,

feel pride in working for their company, are committed to

working for their company and have favorable perceptions of

their work environment

Towers Watson (2010)


The many and varied definitions of employee engagement are a major problem with this area of work. It is incredibly difficult to conduct empirical research on a construct that is defined differently by everyone who talks about or uses it (Bakker, Schaufeli, Leiter, & Taris, 2008). Note that our review of definitions is certainly not complete; other authors created similar summaries (e.g. Shuck & Wollard, 2010; Zigarmi et al., 2009). Given the wide range of definitions, there have been several calls to move beyond the competition for the best definition. The sample definitions, ordered by year introduced, show a pattern of moving away from Kahn's original conceptualization that engagement was about the individual bringing more of the self to work toward a more organizationallycentered term.

Although certainly not a perfect sampling, a quick glance at these definitions show the evolution of thought. Also, as the definitions become more inclusive and general, it becomes even more difficult to focus on what engagement is and move toward a common understanding of the process behind the phenomenon. These more inclusive definitions spurred concern of engagement’s overlap with other established constructs. However, Christian, Garza, & Slaughter (2011) proposed that the term has individualistic characteristics that differentiated its use from previous constructs. Supporting evidence was further provided by Hallberg & Schaufeli (2006) who found work engagement, job involvement, and organizational commitment to be three empirically distinct concepts. Finally, Halbesleben & Wheeler (2008) found differentiation between engagement and embeddedness.

These papers support Macey and Schneider’s (2008) argument that engagement simply isn’t "old wine in a new bottle," but rather a combination of new criteria with old established constructs. Dicke (2010) took eighteen definitions of employee engagement and noted the percentages showing certain phrases or concepts to illustrate that although using different definitions, people were inherently talking about relatively similar ideas; Table 2 reports the findings: 


% Used

Commitment – cognitive, affective, behavioral


Commitment – rational and emotional


Discretionary Effort – going above and beyond


Drive innovation


Drive business success


Energy, involvement, efficacy


Passion and profound connection


Positive attitude toward company


Psychological presence – attention and absorption


Shared meaning, understanding – active participation


Stay, say, strive


Think, feel, act, during performance


Translate employee potential into performance


 In addition to not agreeing on a definition of the broad concept itself, researchers have attempted to separate employee engagement into subcategories.Macey & Schneider (2008) and Saks (2006) take the approach of separating the construct in their work into the three sub-categories: cognitive, behavioral, and emotional engagement. This approach has also been used in a more recent study by Kumar & Kumar Sia (2012), though with the substitution of the term “physical” for “behavioral”. The latter define cognitive engagement as “the extent to which employees are focusing very hard whilst at work”, physical engagement as “the extent to which the employees are willing to go the extra mile for the employer”, and emotional engagement as “the extent to which employees are involved emotionally while doing the job.” This distinction into sub-categories is not wholeheartedly embraced by researchers for fear of measurement issues and further elaborating the term into a construct that lacks specific meaning (Dalal, Brummel, Wee, & Thomas, 2008; Saks, 2008).

Engagement Defined as What it is NOT

Due to the extensive amount of disagreement about what employee engagement is, an alternative route is to define it by establishing what it is not. This has been done by addressing engagement via the topic of burnout (Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004). This approach establishes engagement as a positive dimension of wellbeing, while burnout is negative. Burnout involves low levels of energy and identification with an individual’s work, suggesting that engagement provides high levels of each (Schaufeli & Salanova, 2007). Burnout is a psychological syndrome that involves a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors and leads to feelings of cynicism and detachment, exhaustion, a general sense of ineffectiveness, and can be seen as the erosion of engagement (Maslach & Leiter, 2005).

Adding Energy and Burnout

Welbourne, Andrews & Andrews (2005) published an article that was the start of a larger body of their work on employee energy at work. Their conceptualization of energy merges the concepts of engagement with burnout in a unique way. Using theory from sports physiology and protection motivation theory, they conceptualize energy as an optimization construct, with an ideal level of energy being a state where the employee is stimulated and motivated but not at risk of burnout. By monitoring energy, in a way similar to how one measures the body’s pulse (blood flowing through the body) or financial resources (frequent measurement and assessment of trends), their research and subsequent work discovered that individual, team and firm performance were predicted by energy trend data. Energy is used as a leading indicator, with data collection being more frequent than what is done with employee engagement (e.g. every other week, monthly, quarterly).

Other firms are also moving away from the perhaps overly simplistic term of engagement. Towers Watson (2012) is suggesting a new term, “sustainable engagement” which “describes the intensity of employees’ connection to their organization, based on three core elements” (p. 5) composed of being engaged, being enabled, and feeling energized. Zigarmi et. al (2009) argue for the replacement of employee engagement with the refined term of employee work passion, which “is an individual’s persistent, emotionally positive, meaningbased, state of well-being stemming from reoccurring cognitive and affective appraisals of various job and organizational situations that results in consistent, constructive work intentions and behaviors” (p.310).

 Adding to the confusion, many authors tend to change the word that precedes engagement, replacing (or using multiple forms of) the term “employee” with “organizational” engagement (Ellinger, Musgrove, & Ellinger, 2013; Saks, 2006; Fleck & Inceoglu, 2010), “job” engagement (Ellinger et. al, 2013; Saks, 2006; Fleck & Inceoglu, 2010), and “work” engagement (Christan et. al, 2009; Karatepe & Olugbade, 2009; Bakker & Schaufeli, 2008), which likely all transformed in time following Kahn’s initial use of “personal” engagement. Flander (2008), in an interview with industry experts of the commercialization of engagement, comes to the conclusion that each firm has its own definition, but agree that “a truly engaged worker will go above and beyond what is expected and, in so doing, will help make the company successful.” Obviously this is an extremely broad conclusion, but it encompasses much of what other researchers likely believe. One could easily conclude employee engagement is something like "motherhood and apple pie" from the employer's perspective. We cannot conclude that employee engagement always is about employees bringing something about their personal selves to work. Also, there is nothing in most definitions about the employee benefits of engagement, which appear to be the original concern of Kahn's work. We may need to ask what the benefit is to the employee of going above and beyond? To date, the economy still is not thriving. Employees are working long hours, taking work home with them in their mobile, laptop computers and smart phones and at risk of burnout.