What is Employee Engagement?

Employee Engagement” is the management concept du jour. It follows in a long line—Management By Objective (MBO), Quality Circles, Total Quality Management (TQM), Kaizen, Hoshin kanri, to name a few. All focus on the question: “How do we get our employees to do what we need them to do?”

Last week’s post connected employee engagement to business results. Here we focus on defining the term. If you do a word association test with “employee engagement,” what comes to mind? Perhaps:

  • Happiness
  • Satisfaction
  • Motivation
  • Accountability
  • Commitment
  • Enthusiasm
  • Drive
  • Initiative
  • Cooperation

Good words. Missing, however, is the concept of alignment with the organization’s mission and goals. Without alignment, it’s like what the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey said about climbing a tree — you may think you’re doing it well, but not if you’re in the wrong forest.

In my interview of him, New York Times best-selling author Kevin Kruse points out that employee engagement is not the same as employee satisfaction or happiness even though these are desirable. Rather, it’s “the emotional commitment employees have to the organization and to the organization’s goals. When you feel connected to the company, when you have the commitment, you’ll give discretionary effort — you’ll go the extra mile.”

For me, “employee engagement” means being “enthusiastically committed to your employer’s goals.” Why do I define it this way?

  • “Enthusiastically” – Without enthusiasm, we simply may be going through the motions. With it, as Kruse says, we tend to go “the extra mile.”
  • “Committed to” – Commitment means tackling both fun and un-fun tasks, in both good times and bad. Are there aspects of your job that you enjoy more than others? Of course! Yet the enjoyable ones aren’t necessarily more important, are they? Perhaps you’re a manager who loves nurturing talent but loathes confronting problematic employee behavior. If you shirk the latter, you’ll undermine the former. Being “committed to” means a willingness to put the same effort into all aspects of your job.
  • “Your employer’s goals” – A truly engaged employee is “other-centered,” meaning she isn’t thinking primarily (or exclusively!) about her goals, needs, wants, expectations, etc. She’s thinking about her organization, the people in it and the people it serves. She understands and embraces the mission and goals, and she aligns her efforts with them.

In subsequent posts, we’ll explore the conditions that create engaged workplace relationships, and the steps leaders can take to create cultures rooted in an enthusiastic commitment to the organization’s goals.