Hardly a week goes by without some headline discussing the dire state of engagement. Typically, these headlines are propagated using data from a consulting firm, whose data indicate that scores of people are disengaged or, at the very least, unengaged.
However, APA’s national poll in 2014 using a scientifically validated measure of work engagement (as opposed to a consulting firm’s made up definition of engagement) showed that in the general population work engagement manifests as a close approximation of the bell curve, just with a slight negative skew (i.e., more people fall into the higher engagement categories that the lower engagement categories). While those results are now a bit dated (after all, that was more than two years ago), I would suspect that a more updated poll would show much the same thing.
This issue surrounding many of the engagement headlines is a big reason why I was pleasantly surprised to read a piece written by Rodd Wagner last month in Forbes. He echoes the rallying cry against this engagement alarmism (or the Chicken Littles as he refers to them). When considered within the context of other data I have discussed on this blog, along with some of the scholarly research that has been published, here are few of the key pragmatic, non-alarmist and rational takeaways about the state of engagement in the workplace.
- There is a difference between work engagement (a scientifically validated construct) and employee engagement (a consulting firm’s hodgepodge of satisfaction and commitment items).
- Work engagement is about the employee working experience and its pleasantness/unpleasantness. Employee engagement is about how the company can convince employees to work harder and longer (i.e., “discretionary effort”).
- Work engagement exists as a normal distribution, with a somewhat higher percentage of employees in the high engagement group than in the low engagement group. However, the vast majority of people will report average levels of engagement.
- Employees do not have to be in the high engagement category to be high performers, and in fact, there is some evidence that higher performers are not always the most engaged.
- In terms of a psychologically healthy workplace, work engagement is most associated with employee involvement, growth and development, and health and safety practices.
There is room for improvement when it comes to the way organizations approach work engagement, but most employees will not be enticed by cheap gimmicks (Don’t tell some of the tech companies that rely on said gimmicks to keep employees at the office for longer hours). If organizations want to actually enhance work engagement, they will need put forth their own discretionary effort to address issues in the corporate culture, in the way work is designed and in more adaptive and flexible work environments.