AB Thinks  →  14th September 2021

Employee engagement: the origin story

If you secretly doubt the usefulness of your annual employee engagement survey, you’re not alone. The man who developed the concept of engagement has similar concerns.

In 1990, the organisational psychologist Professor William Kahn published a paper in the Academy of Management Journal entitled Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work’. Much to his surprise, the concept of engagement at work took hold.

Fast forward to today, and, according to Gartner, 74 per cent of organisations worldwide are using engagement surveys to assess how their employees are feeling.

Did Professor Kahn foresee his impact on the world?

“Not at all,” he told me on The Internal Comms Podcast. “I was just trying to finish my dissertation and get a job. To find myself still talking about this is astonishing.”

But in truth, are we still talking about Professor Kahn’s original theory, or has it been misunderstood and misinterpreted over the past thirty years?

Professor Kahn was working from the principle that people are “sophisticated resource managers of their true selves”. We decide how much of ourselves – physically, cognitively, and emotionally – we bring to our work. And that can change moment by moment.

He outlined three psychological conditions that govern how engaged or disengaged we feel – meaningfulness, safety and availability. In the years since, all three concepts have entered mainstream thinking.

Employees are on the hunt for work with meaning. Indeed, a 2018 report found nine out of ten workers in the United States were willing to give up an average of 23 per cent of their lifetime earnings in exchange for always having a meaningful job.

Physiological safety is now recognised as a critical feature of high-performing teams. In 1990, Professor Kahn wrote about the importance of employees being allowed to “try and perhaps to fail without fearing the consequences”. Later research, particularly the work of Amy Edmondson, emphasised the importance of employees feeling safe to speak up and challenge. Without physiological safety, there is little risk-taking, creativity and open, blame-free interrogation of failure. Mistakes do not become opportunities to learn.

Psychological availability is the “sense of having the physical, emotional, or psychological resources to engage at a particular moment personally”, wrote Kahn. He saw how depleted, emotionally drained or distracted his research subjects could become and how this directly impacted their energy at work. Thirty years on, the danger of burnout and the need to achieve the right work-life balance are widely understood.

Clearly, Professor Kahn was ahead of his time. But before our interview, I re-read his 1990 paper. I realised he did not once refer to ‘employee engagement’, only ‘personal engagement’. Was this significant?

Professor Khan believe it is. “I was exploring engagement from the personal perspective; the moments in which we bring themselves into – or remove themselves – from a task”. Employee engagement is different. It shifts the emphasis to how an enterprise can get more from its people – more ideas, commitment and discretionary effort.

Professor Kahn understands why this shift occurred but says: “I don’t think what I was talking about – what it means to be present – can be measured through a survey. I never once tried to create a paper and pencil test that would measure safety, meaningfulness, and availability partly because engagement is not an enduring state. It is fleeting, based on what is happening in the moment”.

Measuring the original concept of engagement may be impossible, but the Professor does believe leaders can create an environment where engagement is more likely to flourish. Although before they do, leaders should ask themselves whether they really want an engaged workforce.

“True engagement is messy,” warns Professor Kahn. “It means licencing people to use their voice, which means leaders cannot control what their employees are going to say, how loudly or quietly they say it, and with what emotion”. In short, truly engaged employees cannot be easily controlled.

“I think organisations are steeped in the illusion that employees can disconnect from their emotions when they walk into the building like taking off a hat. Then, when they leave, they put their hats back on. For me, these hats represent emotions, relationships and messiness – the real stuff of who we are as people.”

Leaders who create an environment that fosters engagement are comfortable with ambiguity, tension and the entire gamut of human emotion. But crucially, he adds, they are at ease with their own emotional messiness. “To acknowledge and understand the frustration, pain and joy of others, we need to contain our own reactions and not push the emotion – and therefore the person – away”, he explains.

Finally, I had to quiz Professor Kahn on a question I knew my listeners would be keen to ask: given his many years’ experience as an organisational psychologist, how would he improve communication in the workplace?

“I think people misunderstand the word communication. They frame it as a one-way provision of information from someone who knows to someone who does not. Instead, I think of opportunities to create belonging and discover together – not simply pushing out information to influence and convince others.

“If we have learned anything from my entire field of organisational psychology, we’ve learned when people are involved in creating and designing something together, they are much more likely to make it happen in the world.

“Bring people in early and often – honour their voices.”

Returning to the original theory of personal engagement at work reveals many nuanced and sophisticated ideas that, while more than three decades old, feel more relevant and useful than ever.

Katie Macaulay is a leading voice in employee communication. She is an international public speaker, managing director of AB, author of From Cascade to Conversation, and host of The Internal Comms Podcast. Katie sits on the Board of The International Association of Business Communicators.