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Defining Employee Engagement

Defining Employee Engagement

With all the news about low employee engagement, you would think that there was a common understanding of what it means. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.


min read

Close up of a bicycle gear sprocket engaged with a chain.

As I mentioned in my last article, I started analyzing the recent data about employee engagement. And, while reflecting on my own experience both as a leader and as a consultant focused on team performance, I realized there is quite a bit of confusion about what engagement means. Perhaps before we start pointing fingers at leaders to solve the “the engagement problem”, we should first have a clear understanding of what it means.

A short history of the word

Dictionaries define engagement as an event or meeting (I have an engagement tonight), a state of doing something (the act of engaging) or a pledge (like a promise to get married). (Merriam-Webster)

The root of the word goes back to early 15th century English as engagen, “to pledge” which probably came from the French word engager, “bind by promise or oath” as in its use as a “promise to marry”. In the early 17th century we see the word engage being used in the context of employment as in “giving aid”. It isn’t until 1884 that we see it being used in the context of gears engaging in machines. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The use of the word as a tool for measuring the interaction of an employee to the work they are doing didn’t occur until 1990 by William Kahn in a study titled “Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work” (Academy of Management Journal, 33 (4), pp 692–724). And based on the quantity of academic research and writings from consultants focused in this space since 1990, it would appear that we haven’t figured it out yet. Even 30 years later, we still struggle to create a common definition of what employee engagement means.

Defining Engagement

As Emma Bridger stated in her excellent book Employee Engagement: A Practical Introduction, 3rd Ed.

Finding an answer to the question ‘What is employee engagement?’ is easier said than done. There is no single, universally accepted definition of employee engagement, although huge amounts of time and energy have been spent trying to agree upon one! Research shows that just 14 percent of companies have a definition of employee engagement, and where companies do have a definition they report that it is not well understood (People Lab, 2017).

Employee Engagement: A Practical Introduction (2022) , pg. 3

She points to one study in 2009 by Davide MacLeod and Nita Clarke that found over 50 different definitions of employee engagement (pg. 3). There isn’t even an agreement to whether it is an attitude, behavior or an outcome. As noted by Bridger:

Some would argue engagement is all about attitudes towards the organization, or people we work with. For example, we may feel proud to work at a particular company, we might like the people we work with or our boss. For others engagement is all about behaviours, for example, would we recommend our company to others? Or do we go the extra mile to finish a piece of work? Finally for others, engagement is all about the business outcomes, for example, are people staying with the company rather than leaving? Are employees less absent, or is there more innovation?

Employee Engagement: A Practical Introduction (2022) , pg. 8

Many of the definitions I find from consultancies define engagement as something “more” than what is expected for the job. For example, Gartner gravitates around a definition of discretionary effort.

Employee engagement is the combination of pride, energy and optimism that fuels and employee’s discretionary effort and intent to stay.

“Audit Employee Engagement Insights: Engagement and Retention of Audit Talent”, April 2018,

Finally, Gallup’s most recent definition defines it as being psychologically present.

True engagement means your people are psychologically present to do their work. They understand what to do; they have what they need; and they have a supportive manager and a supportive team. They know why their work matters. They are work ready.

State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report, Pg 10,

But ambiguity creates confusion and disengagement

The lack of a definite definition around what engagement means can lead to subjective interpretation based on whether you are the leader or not.

For example, one of my coaching clients is a graduate student who, after being accused by teachers as not being engaged, showed me the quality and quantity of notes they took during classes, lectures and meetings. “At least I wasn’t surfing the web like many of the other students,” was their comment. In the student’s perspective they were highly engaged in learning and thinking. The teacher, having not explained their definition of engagement, created ambiguity and graded the student poorly for the lack of it.

Another example occurred to me many years ago. An individual was assigned to my team on a “performance improvement plan” and was labeled by the previous manager as “difficult to work with, and not engaged”. It did not take long for trust to develop before the individual opened up about the problems dealing with aging parents, combined with a being the parent of young children, which created significant pressure at home and at work. To the manager they were disengaged, but to the employee they were engaged to the extent they physically and emotionally could be. As an aside, and a topic for a different day, all it took was a little empathy and latitude and in a short time the individual was one of the best team members we had in spite of the difficulties in their personal life.

And although we have no evidence that Peter Drucker ever actually said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, I think there is truth to the thinking that regardless of what is on paper as a definition of engagement, the “unwritten rules” of the organization will actually define it.

One example is an individual I spoke to who lamented that their employer labeled them as not engaged and therefore not “management material” simply because they had to catch the 5:00pm bus to get home at a reasonable hour to spend time with their young family. The cultural expectation of the company was that anyone who wanted to rise up the ranks would be spending 10 or more hours daily in the office. This certainly wasn’t part of the job description, nor part of any official definition of “employee engagement” for the company, just one of the unwritten rules of the organization that defined the expectations.

Build your own

If consultants and the academic community can’t agree on a definition, and the lack of one leaves too much interpretation, then the best solution is for the organization to explicitly create their own definition of employee engagement. Then, take good care to not let the culture of your organization redefine it for you.

Whether or not you feel you have an “engagement problem”, creating explicit expectations and examples of exceeding those expectations is the critical first step to any engaged team and is a key component of your talent strategy.

I will come back to creating your own definition of employee engagement in the future. But first, we need to take another look at several global engagement surveys to answer the question – What are they really telling us?

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