Employee Engagement: Yep, It Really is All About the Work


Work is never ” just work” — it is a guiding element in an individual’s life. Finding meaning in what we do is a key, and feeling motivated by the content of our work is critical to fuel creativity, innovation and eventual success.

At one time, it was thought that job characteristics such as pay and title were the only motivators worth exploring. But over the years, changes in the way we look at work, and the potential correlates of job satisfaction have moved that needle. We now acknowledge that job attributes such as autonomy and opportunities for career growth, are also powerful motivators in the workplace. The explosion of interest in employee engagement — and its relationship to organizational outcomes is another example of this evolving view. We may have a long way to go to achieve high levels of engagement at work, but there is no arguing its role and importance.

Early theorists were on the right track
The idea of feeling “engaged” at work is a much older concept than many realize. Interestingly, the roots of the employee engagement concept can be traced back to some early theories concerning motivation and organizational membership. For the most part, early thought leaders were right on target with today’s trends. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954) is an excellent example.

Maslow, a Humanistic Psychologist, believed that positive mental health was in part related to belief that you are making a meaningful contribution to the world. His description of the need for self-actualization, (which was viewed as indulgent at the time), sounds much like the concept of engagement.

Theories concerning organizational system requirements have also eluded to the notion of employee engagement, and its importance. The classic text The Social Psychology of Organizations (Katz & Kahn,1966), outlined three behavioral requirements needed for organizational success — the last of which sounds much like engagement:

  • An attraction to join the organization and the desire to remain in it.
  • People must dependably perform the tasks for which they were hired.
  • People must go beyond dependable role tasks and engage in some sort of creative, spontaneous and innovative behavior.

Research backs this up
The need to feel that work has meaning, has emerged as a key topic in the research arena as well. A recent study by Blessing-White, an organization which examines workplace trends has revealed this. When employees were asked about the factors that might influence their plans to stay at an organization 30%, said it was their work and enjoying what they do. Another 17% stated their chance for career development or advancement. (Interestingly, only 7% agreed that salary was the greatest influence in their decision to stay. )As the researchers aptly summarized, “Employees will stay for the work, but leave for career.”

Changing the mindset: Engagement matters
The economic recession has forced us take a closer look at the drivers of organizational effectiveness in a more creative way. Overall, we are poised to realize that making decisions solely on the basis of spreadsheets is completely ill-advised. Managers are looking for strategies to meet the needs of their employees while also achieving organizational goals.

As such, this opens the doors for the power of the engagement to take center stage.

I for one, am thrilled.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist located in East Lansing, Michigan. Connect with her on Twitter and Linkedin.

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