How to Engage Employees: Use a Multi-Faceted Approach

engaged employees at a meeting

Do your employees feel engaged? Do they act engaged too?

Many an organizational survey has been built to try and figure that out by understanding the state of mind of one's people: Are they committed to their jobs? Do they feel good about what they do? Are they proud to tell people where they work?

But in approaching engagement that way, employers are limiting themselves in the ways they can actually impact the creation of an engaged workforce.

The History of Engagement

Coined and popularized by those in the HR industry, employee engagement initially got little attention as just another term for employee satisfaction or commitment. But as the term grew - to include things like enthusiasm and effort - its impact became undeniable. Today, when it comes to measures of company success, employee engagement might be the elusive sister to sales, stock price, and net worth. They all carry so much power, but the former is difficult to measure and track.

Academic researchers have now spent years independently and in partnerships with organizations studying the concept. And employers have fully embraced it. There's no doubt that engaging employees is a top priority today's organizations.  Deloitte just released a report on the human capital trends of 2015 showing that engagement is one of the most important issues overall right now for companies.

Different Meanings for Different Companies

As HR professionals, you may think you have a handle on the topic. But as you develop your strategy, it may be a good idea to understand what academic researchers have to say about it.

Because while academics and practitioners generally agree on the existence and importance of engagement, its exact definition and measurement can vary wildly.

Gallup, for example, defines engagement as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace. Towers Watson says engagement is an employee's willingness and ability to contribute to company success.

Such short definitions seem ideal for HR professionals looking to explain and sell the necessity of engagement quickly to stakeholders. But if we take a look at some of the academic research, we see that those very short definitions may be leading HR practitioners to miss out on some key components.

How To Engage Employees in Your Organization

A better, more thorough look is laid out by the three components discussed by William Macey and Benjamin Schneider: trait, state, or behavioral.

State engagement

This represents how employees feel currently. This type of engagement is one generally focused on by employers, perhaps because it can be most impacted by employer initiatives. It's primarily assessed through organizational surveys asking employees things such as: Are proud to tell others they work for their organization? Do they feel personally connected to their organization's mission?

Trait engagement

This describes implicit characteristics of a person's personality that makes them inclined to be engaged. Such things might include proactive tendencies, conscientiousness, and a general enthusiastic and energetic attitude toward life. Employees showing this type of engagement are typically good workers who are excited to be at work.

Behavioral engagement

This represents what an employee actually does at work. Whereas most definitions of employee engagement revolve around feelings or attitudes (i.e. state engagement), behavioral engagement is defined by actions, specifically those that are voluntary and often outside of the scope of the employee's job description. A behaviorally engaged employee expends extra effort at work, not necessarily just by working more, but by recognizing organizational challenges and choosing to address them without being asked or told. This may be something simple (mentoring new hires) or grand (developing a new product).

Embracing All of the Definitions

While organizations tend to focus on state engagement (it's the easiest to impact through initiatives and programs), all three of the above definitions are informative. Employees who go beyond the usual or typical (who are behaviorally engaged), for example, often possess a combination of trait and state engagement, in addition to experiencing positive culture, leadership, and employee trust within their organization.

This says some interesting things about opportunities for employers to impact engagement. Recognizing the importance of trait engagement allows you to shape your workforce through recruitment and selection; being aware of what impacts behavioral engagement allows you to advance organizational culture and innovation. Both will ensure employee engagement efforts are fruitful.

Of course, this is all from an academic perspective. To get the real-world benefits - to experience the positive effects of an engaged workforce - comes from knowing your people and what they need.    

Written by: Rachel Hill

About the Author

Rachel Hill at Bright Horizons

As a Research Analyst for Horizons Workforce Consulting, Shannon works with Bright Horizons Education & College Advising corporate clients to deliver college financing workshops and provide personalized counseling to employees. She has over 10 years of experience in student financial assistance, at Boston University and Tufts University, and has also served as an active member of MASFAA’s Early Awareness and Outreach Committee, as a trainer for DOE’s National Training for Counselors and Mentors, and as a volunteer for FAFSA Day Massachusetts.