Has engagement run its course?

by 15 Dec 2008

There’s no doubt that ‘Engagement Has Run Its Course’ (issue 166, 25 November, p1) is a catchy headline for your magazine and Professor Roger Collins’s breakfast presentation. I applaud the challenge it poses practitioners. Based on research by Voice Project at Macquarie University, however, I’d be willing to wager a large sum of money that managers will still be closely measuring engagement for many years to come.

I agree entirely with Collins’s claim that engagement is more employer-centric than previous measures such as job satisfaction. Engagement measures a level of energy and loyalty (outcomes that are attractive to employers) that was lacking in more traditional measures. I disagree, though, that this attribute is a disadvantage, and I would strongly advise practitioners to think twice before adopting Collins’s suggestion of wellbeing as their primary employee metric.

Some definitions are needed. Collins accurately reports advocacy for one’s employer as a common component of engagement. There are other components, however, and the most common component of engagement is feeling a sense of commitment towards an employer.

Indeed, in a recent edition of the journal Industrial and Organisational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, an entire half of the edition featured commentaries about engagement by the world’s leading researchers. There was near-unanimous agreement that commitment was a central component of engagement (alongside other features such as becoming absorbed with one’s job, displaying discretionary effort and demonstrating initiative).

Finally, the suggestion that wellbeing should take priority over engagement comes with some dangerous side-effects. Many researchers and practitioners suffer from the half-truth that the importance of wellbeing is evidence-based. When studied in isolation, there is a consistently small but positive relationship between wellbeing and a broad range of desired employee outcomes.

When studied alongside a range of other management practices and outcomes, however, wellbeing loses its lustre. In our own research and practice, involving hundreds of thousands of employees, wellbeing-related practices such as work-life balance are the least useful for predicting critical outcomes such as turnover levels and achieving objectives.

The data’s in and it coincides with managers’ gut instincts. A focus on wellbeing may produce a less-stressed workplace, but a focus on engagement will deliver tangible business results. I know where I’m putting my money.

– Dr Peter Langford, Department of Business, Macquarie University

Roger Collins responds …

In my presentation I traced the history of our understanding of the psychological contract from the military concepts of esprit de corp and morale, through job satisfaction and engagement in order to draw attention to our unfolding understanding of this issue. In particular I acknowledged that engagement was a useful surrogate concept that had good predictive validity.

However, like many of our concepts, there comes a time when they have marginal utility albeit that, as my colleague Andrew Bell from Hewitt Associates points out, many Australian managers have yet to acknowledge and apply the power of engagement.

One concern that I have with engagement is that it can become a very employer-oriented idea, without due recognition of the needs of organisational members. And if we are to build sustainable organisations we need to develop reciprocal benefits for our organisations and their members alike.

Positive organisational psychology has produced concepts that add considerably to the power of engagement. The very research that Peter Langford advocates has produced findings on flow, resilience, strengths, positive inquiry and wellbeing that offer insights and applications that can take us forward to significantly greater benefits for both organisations and members.

Wellbeing is a special case in point because of the generalisabilty of this concept across levels of analysis (national populations, organisations, teams, individuals and social units) and because of the well- documented physical, psychological and cognitive consequences of wellbeing. Notably, the work at the University of Michigan, the Institute for Work Psychology at Sheffield University and Cambridge University are testimony to these breakthroughs.

In sum, we need to recognise that research produces new insights that enable us to advance our contributions. Older concepts continue to add value in many situations, but let’s not resist the unstoppable advance of knowledge and its application, particularly if it brings reciprocal benefits to all involved.

– Roger Collins, Professor Emeritus at the University of NSW and Human Resources magazine editorial board member