Blog Engagement

How to define employee engagement and what Gallup lacks

How do you define employee engagement? That's a simple-sounding question with a lot of different answers. The elephant in the room for advocates of engagement is this: defining it has been a real struggle. But we've cracked it, and here's how we got to our conclusion.  

Employee engagement is our North Star. It has a vital role to play in business success. But even we have to admit that pinning down a measurable, universally-accepted definition has been a thorn in the side of engagement for far too long.  

HR leaders often feel the same, with several "fluffy" definitions and misused or overused words like "satisfaction," "culture" and "happiness." All lovely sounding but often not all that tangible or accurate. 

So, we've worked hard to explore those existing definitions and shape a single, measurable, evidence-based definition. Let's go... 

Employee engagement has too many meanings 

Even well-regarded sources like Gallup, Gartner and the CIPD have considerably different definitions on what employee engagement is: 

  • Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. 
  • Gartner defines employee engagement as the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization and put discretionary effort into their work. 
  • The CIPD calls employee engagement an umbrella term describing a broad area of people strategy. But it also refers to narrower constructs such as work engagement or organisational commitment when you need to be more specific. 

Three of the biggest names in employee engagement, with three significantly different definitions. Not exactly helpful, and they're not alone. In their 2009 study, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke found more than fifty separate prevalent definitions for employee engagement, which is ludicrous. It also shows that people have been struggling to clarify engagement for well over a decade at least.

This can make separating truth from misconception frustratingly difficult.  

Following on from a 2020 evidence-based review of dozens of engagement definitions the CIPD published findings in January 2021 highlighting four categories for definitions: 

Personal role engagement

This category is based on one of the earliest definitions of employee engagement, established by Kahn in the 1990s. It refers to an employee's ability to ' their preferred selves in their work.' As per Kahn's model, employee engagement is comprised of physical, cognitive and emotional aspects and is largely a psychological construct. 

Work and task engagement

This definition essentially frames engagement as the opposite of burnout. It refers to the levels of vigour, dedication and absorption in work. Where it falls down is that many studies have found as many as 30% of highly engaged employees are at risk of burnout. This suggests these are not two mutually exclusive states. 

Multidimensional engagement

This employee engagement definition makes the important distinction between how employees engage with their specific roles, versus how they engage with the organisation in general. Bear this in mind, as it's vital for creating one unified engagement definition.  

For example, employees might find their job stressful and exhausting, but identify with the goals and values of their employer. Or they might love their day-to-day work experience but disagree with their company's ideology. A lack of cohesion here will ensure a lack of engagement sooner or later.  

Self-engagement with performance

The CIPD specifies that this is a less commonly found definition. It's meant to be 'based on how important employees regard high performance.' Essentially, it means helping employees to keep themselves engaged using their own performance as a benchmark. 

Our definition of employee engagement 

We think you'll agree that it's important to establish a single, concise employee engagement definition to work with. Whilst the CIPDs work in categorising definitions is extremely useful, we feel it doesn't go far enough. 

So, our People Science team and our HR Success Partners have been on the case.  

Looking for correlations and key engagement markers within existing definitions (and the CIPD groupings) we see a number of key themes: 

  • Employee engagement is a psychological state of being, focussing on the 'human' element of HR. 
  • Employee engagement is about passion, commitment and belonging. 
  • Employee engagement relates to the purpose, goals and conduct of an organisation
  • Employee engagement is both based on attitudinal and behavioural markers.

Using these statements and combining both the art of HR and the behavioural science approach we take to all we do, we define employee engagement rather simply as:  The level of emotional affection and commitment an employee has to their work, the company's goals and purpose, and their peers. 

Making employee engagement measurable

We can break down our definition into its component parts. And, at that point, we can see we have some clearly measurable variables in affection and commitment. We can also identify the factors with which to measure against (our work, our employers, their goals/purpose, and our colleagues).

Utilising frequent feedback process, such as an employee check-in, we are able to ask pertinent questions of our employees that investigate these variables on a regular cadence. Then using analytical tools such as sentiment analysis, semiotics and statistical models it is possible to quantify engagement.

Sure, under the bonnet there are multiple factors impacting each of these, from salary and environment to how autonomous we can be and how "good" our managers are. In this sense, engagement is comparable to a complex inter-personal relationship, such as a marriage. In a future blog we will be jumping into the factors that underlie this definition and what 'makes' employee engagement.  

But what this definition does is it provides a solid starting block for any HR pro to take into all employee engagement activity moving forward. And that's something we can all benefit from.

Grab a copy of our latest best practice guide: Employee Engagement in a Remote Working World to learn how to influence how engaged your people feel