Skepticism Around Engagement

Another body of literature suggests that engagement can only do so much and that the other piece of the puzzle, enablement, can be the true determinant of many of the positive outcomes. Employee enablement “refers to the ability of individuals and teams that are already engaged to make maximum contributions” (Royal & Agnew, 2011: 58). Enablement is divided into two key components: optimizing employee roles and creating a supportive environment (Royal & Agnew, 2011). Simply put, although engagement is important to foster, it is a two-way street that requires providing employees with the resources needed in order to meet the maximum potential of their engagement. This goes back to the original definitions of engagement that focused on the employee bringing the self to work.

In addition, reports on the money making involved with engagement are casting some suspicion on this body of work. Kroll (2005) points out that Gallup’s “engagement surveys and consulting fees represent 25% of its $240 million (estimated 2005) in revenues.” As noted earlier, other firms compete with Gallup, including Development Dimensions International, Hewitt Associates, International Survey Research, and Alpha Measure, with fees typically running from $5 to $25 per employee surveyed and additional fees for consulting afterwards (Kroll, 2005). Companies like Best Buy, International Paper, Wells Fargo, and A&P have spent $1 million for Gallup’s employee testing and advice (Jones, 2002). Of course, Gallup is not the only vendor of engagement surveys, as each company attempts to have its own approach to build an individual brand to gain a strategic advantage (Flander, 2008). This is likely the cause of much of the difficulty around defining engagement itself and the variance in antecedents.

Finally, some researchers have attacked the concept for its methodology and ambiguity. Peter Hutton in his book “What Are Your Staff Trying to Tell You” suggests that it’s foolish to ask agree/disagree questions and then make such large claims from it (Crush, 2009). Thornham & Charmorro-Premuzic (2006) believe that organizations need to shift their focus from vague questions about generally desirable practices “to specific questions about key actions the organization is taking.” Their point is that organizations can fail for a number of reasons. Cornell University HR professor Christopher Collins says that engagement studies are inherently misleading since they don’t show which came first – the engagement or the company’s success (Flander, 2008). By no means is engagement a clean subject, but it’s hard to simply ignore all of the possible benefits associated with increasing it. As Shaw (2005) puts it: “Realistically, everyone knows that there are limitless factors that will affect engagement. One survey company we interviewed spoke of having identified 700 key drivers of engagement present in a particular client’s organization. The pursuit of engagement is endless because everything about employee’s corporate life will feed into and affect their engagement: Who they are, their work group, their supervisor, the CEO, the company values, their own values, their recognition, how easy it is for them to do their job, their age, their experience, their tenure with the company, etc. This perhaps, is why the whole thing is staying at the vision level, because to go any deeper would be to open a can of worms. It would require reduction of both the objectives and the drivers to a few core aims – and we don’t want a few good things, we want them all.”

Engaged in What? Role Theory to Link Engagement and Performance

There is a lot to learn on the topic of employee engagement and we think it's impossible for anyone to come away from reviewing this literature with a clear indicator of what engagement is or how it works. Thus, we suggest it's time to move forward, and that is what we will do in this next section of the report. We use role theory to link employee engagement to firm performance. The critical question that will be asked is "engaged in what?" Engagement alone is not enough; in order to understand how engagement might drive firm performance through people, one must understand how it works. Vague notions of being "emotionally attached" or "going above and beyond" are inadequate.

Using the concept of roles, we bring the idea of "above and beyond" to a new level. When specific language and definitions are used to classify and measure behaviors, then the link between engagement and performance can be mapped. When this logical flow is established, then leaders have the power to plan how to change firm performance through the role-based behavior of employees. A role-based model also provides a path to return to the roots of employee engagement. We can define the parts of the self that the employer values at work, allowing the employee to then discuss making time to do more than just the job. We think the roles-based approach to engagement provides an avenue  for taking this topic to the next level, which can help both employees and employers.

The promise of using the roles work to link engagement to performance is to make the confusing notion of employee engagement tactical and something that can be managed. The role-based work also allows leaders to clearly see the potential negative effects of expecting everything from employees. Individuals only have so many hours in a day, and if we ask people to go "above and beyond," there are consequences. Employees do not live at work; they do other things in their lives. Thus, employers need to be mindful of what they are asking employees to do. The language of roles allows leaders and managers to:

1.  Engage in intellectual, fact-based discussions about what employers really want employees to do differently when they are 'engaged' at work.

2. Use levers to reward, incent and encourage behaviors in the right roles. Rewards and recognition can provide a fair exchange for the types of behaviors employers are seeking.

Role-Based Performance

Welbourne, Johnson and Erez (1998) introduced the role-based performance scale in an article published in the Academy of Management Journal. In this body of research, they defined five distinct roles that employees engage in when at work. These five roles have been used in subsequent studies of performance, and the original validation work has been extended. These five roles were chosen by examining the types of work employers allocated resources (money) for employees to do when at work. Thus, the linkage between incentives, roles and performance was established.

The five roles are defined as:

Core Job Role The work performance in this role is usually described in the traditional job description. The core job role focuses on what one is hired to do.

Career Role When engaged in this role, employees are doing things to help advance their careers. They are improving skills through attending training, taking courses, mentoring or being mentored and working to keep up their level of skills.

Team Role This role focuses on actions within a team (one's own team or other teams at work). The individual is doing work to support a team, helping support team members and overall doing work that is not part of the core job but associated with a team effort.

Innovator Role In this role, employees are taking time to not just make big innovations but to improve how work is done overall. It can be small and big innovations, and also employees can support the new ideas and innovations of others vs. doing the work on their own.

Organization Role In the organizational member role, employees are engaging in citizen-like behaviors to help the company. They are doing things for the firm that are not part of their core job but that help the organization overall. An example often given is a janitor turning off lights to save money.

Role theory comes from a body of work on identity theory, and there is one core learning from this work that's critical to build into the work we propose, namely that all of the roles cannot be equally important. As you make one more critical, others move down in the hierarchy. Employees engage in the roles that are the highest ranked; in other words, people have limited time.

Employees have to make choices about how to spend their time, and they will engage in the roles that the employer communicates are the highest priorities. Ask employees what "above and beyond" means, and they will (in many cases) tell you it's about doing more work, spending more hours at work, etc. The core job role is prominent. Although we talk about "above and beyond" being things like teamwork, innovation and the organizational member role, in reality, in many firms, it's all about the core job. This is because most employers do not specifically say what "discretionary effort" and "above and beyond" mean. The roles’ language allows employers to think strategically about what employees need to do in order to drive business performance.

The often-used example is Google, which allocates 20% of an employee's time to innovation and idea generation. They realized that to get innovation you have to make space for innovation, and it has to count. In numerous studies and consulting work done by Dr. Welbourne, leadership teams in organizations around the world have used the role-based work to diagnose what's important for the firm to succeed and then outline what roles they are incenting and rewarding. In every case, there is a significant disconnect. Discussions go something like this:

  • "We think innovation and career are critical for our growth. Of course, core job is important too - but it's not really as important as innovation."
  • "What do we pay for? Hours and the job role"
  • "What do we punish? Innovation and career"

Spending time in the innovator and career roles can be perceived by employees as punishment (vs. a reward) when the firm's processes lead to negative consequences to the employee. This can occur because innovative behaviors often involve risk taking, and non-job role work takes time away from the job.

Consider the case of Google vs. Microsoft. It is widely reported that Google provides employees with 20% of their time for innovation while Microsoft was criticized for discouraging innovation, and many think this is why Google's performance has soared while Microsoft has struggled. Rewards, recognition and incentives send the signals about how to spend time at work. These can be formal or informal. They are the messages about what people should be engaged in to succeed at work.

What Are Employees Engaged In At Work?

In the next section, we review a set of empirical studies to explore patterns of the types of role-based performance outcomes that researchers have been investigating in the employee engagement arena. In other words, what rolebased outcomes are being studied to date? Table 5 provides a summary of the research. Note that we are not including every single study conducted due to time constraints given the extensive body of literature. Additionally, we only included studies that met a set of criteria discussed in the next section. Across the top of the table are the five roles discussed earlier in addition to one overall role that captures non-work roles (e.g. mother, father, child, coach for track team, etc.).


Paper Selection Process

Papers included were chosen based on the following process:

  • First, we conducted a literature review of published articles using multiple keywords (e.g., engagement, employee engagement, etc).
  • Second, we included only papers that studied outcomes of employee engagement. Although there is much published on the topic, the majority of papers are not empirical, and of those that are, very few link engagement to outcomes. Many more papers examine the predictors of employee engagement, and even more are case studies without data.

The result was a total of 15 papers for the analysis, and of those 15, six were either published by consulting firms in their reports (thus not peer reviewed) or used consultant firm data. The papers' outcome variables were then coded into the roles following the descriptors laid out by Welbourne et al. (1998). Final determination of the role categorization was done by both authors, using a scheme that required agreement by both to be included. Next, we review each of the role categories and the types of studies and/or outcomes included by authors.

Role Categories - Outcomes

Career Role – Only one paper was categorized as studying outcomes that are focused on career-role behaviors. This study suggested that day-level recovery, roughly defined as the time an employee has for him/herself after work, had a positive impact on both work engagement as well as day-level proactive behavior, which is an overarching term boiled down into personal initiative and pursuit of learning (Sonnentag, 2003). Including this outcome as a careerfocused outcome is tenuous because the measurement alludes to learning, but it does not directly measure that aspect of behavior.

Core-Job Role – The majority of studies, a total of 13, are focused on studying job-related behavior as an outcome. The types of behaviors studied ranged from performance appraisal scores to absenteeism and turnover (all focused on some aspect of doing the core job). The outcome variables can be determined via self-report or manager reported instruments.

Innovator Role - The role is defined as taking the time to make or discuss any improvements to how work is done overall. We classified only one paper examining the innovator role, and that was perhaps a stretch. In the previously discussed Sonnentag (2003) paper, the author looked at not only pursuit of learning but also personal initiative. It appears that the questions tap into aspects of problem solving and innovation (e.g., “I actively attack problems”), which is why we included it in the innovator role.

Organizational Member Role – The organization role consists of those behaviors that an employee may engage in that are not necessarily part of the job description, but rather help the organization as a whole. These activities are not contractually obligatory, but considered in a similar scope of importance to maintaining organizational success. These attributes are often measured in terms of variables that connote organizational citizenship behaviors (Saks, 2006; Rich, LePine, & Crawford, 2010). Saks (2006) provides an example of this self-report measure: [I] “Take action to protect the organization from potential problems” (Lee & Allen, 2002). Although all of the selected readings in our group specifically assesses organizational citizenship behaviors as an overarching construct, Rich, LePine, & Crawford (2010) use various pieces of definitions (Organ, 1988; Motowildo et al., 1997) to suggest that these types of behaviors can include “helpfulness, sportsmanship, conscientiousness, and civic virtue” (p. 620).

Team Member Role – Only one paper discussed team member role behaviors. Similar to the organizational role, these tasks are not obligated by the job description necessarily, but connote actions taken to help a team or support other team members. Saks (2006) used a scale for organizational citizenship behavior, which was divided into two sections of OCBI and OCBO, with the former asking questions on behavior directed towards the individual and the latter towards the organization. Two example questions in the OCBI section read: “willingly give your time to help others who have work-related problems” and “assist others with their duties” (Lee & Allen, 2002). This highlights a key distinction between the team member role and the organizational role.

Non-Work Roles – These roles encompass all the tasks and attributes of the individual outside the scope of the workplace. Crabtree (2005), writing for the Gallup Management Journal, found that engaged employees, compared to those who weren’t engaged, viewed their work lives as positively influencing their physical health. 

 It is important to note that we were very liberal in our definition of outcomes studied. Many of the criteria included as outcomes are really attitude variables, and the data come from surveys. Few papers study what we will call "real outcomes." These would be data on behaviors that are not collected in surveys. Safety, turnover, absenteeism, training program attendance, idea submission and implementation and sales are objective measure of individual outcomes.

The lack of clear empirical outcomes is discouraging; however, at least these data demonstrate how researchers are thinking about employee engagement.

We can conclude the following:

  • • Most of the work focused on outcomes is concerned with the core job role.
  • Researchers are starting to examine other role-based behaviors.
  • No one study examines all five roles simultaneously.
  • There is virtually no research to show what behaviors may be decreasing as a result of employee engagement. Remember that the hierarchical nature of role-based behaviors suggests that

raising the importance of one role and the associated frequency in which that role is performed will lead to a decrease in other role-based behavior.

Table 6 shows that there is tremendous opportunity to spur our knowledge on the topic of employee engagement by elaborating on the engaged in what question. By deliberately thinking through and planning which roles are needed, engagement initiatives can be much more purposeful and successful. Also, by using the roles language, employees have a better chance of engaging in work Engaged In What? that does indeed allow them to bring more of themselves and their personal interests to work.


The definitions of employee engagement are scattered; the drivers of employee engagement are not agreed upon, and outcomes are difficult to understand because they are, in most cases not studied, and when they are, the causal nature of the relationship is not specified. Even with these problems, engagement continues to be popular, and according to many studies, engagement is declining and more people are disengaged. One example, from the June, 2013 New York Daily News reads:

"Workplace morale down; 70% of Americans negative about their jobs, Gallup study shows."

 The picture included with this article does a nice job of portraying the key messages:

Figure 2: Picture from headline article in New York Daily News

One has to question why the money invested in engagement since the 1990s is not making more of a positive difference. We speculate that there are a few reasons for the disconnect in the body of work called employee engagement and overall firm performance:

  • The definition and approach to employee engagement has evolved. It was once about employees bringing their whole self to work, and today it's about the employer directing employee behavior in a new way (which is not well articulated in many firms).
  • The behavioral changes needed when engagement improves are not specified. Vague terms, that are difficult to measure, are used. Thus, confirmation of the engagement process is impossible. The "engaged in what" question has not been adequately asked or answered.
  • The role-based approach to work provides five specific sets of behaviors that can be examined with employee engagement. Hypotheses about engaging employees in specific roles can be studied and linked to firm performance. The roles-based work brings new learning about the hierarchy of roles. When one role is encouraged and made more important, the others will suffer (or lower in their relative importance and in the amount of time allocated to them). Thus, engaged in what should be a serious strategic choice made by organizations.

The Missing Links: Roles, Rewards, Recognition and Firm Performance

In this report we suggested that the “engaged in what” question is critical for obtaining a return on investment (ROI) for any employee engagement work. Our hypotheses are supported by a growing body of work linking recognition systems to employee engagement. For example, World at Work recently conducted a survey of members and reported that three different programs appeared to be linked to results: (1) above-and-beyond performance recognition, (2) peer-topeer results and (3) recognition programs that motivate specific behavior (World at Work, 2013)4. This type of work supports the notion that finding ways to signal what behaviors are important for engagement may be the link to success. In order to dive into this topic in more depth, in the next section we report on one company's experience in using their rewards and recognition system to supplement the engagement program. Cleveland Clinic's innovative program is an example of what can be done when an organization is more specific about their engagement goals. This example is designed to help introduce an example of how rewards can close the gap between engagement, roles and high performance.