Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.9 William Kahn

James Young
Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.9 William Kahn

For any organisation, a team of fully committed, engaged employees who will always go above and beyond is an incredibly valuable asset. But what does employee engagement actually entail? Step forward William Kahn, the psychologist who developed and named the theory.

Along with defining engagement, Kahn’s primary aim was to identify the conditions that enable it to happen. He was particularly interested in “the moments in which people bring themselves into, or remove themselves from, particular task behaviours”. In other words, how does engagement occur and what prevents it? From this, we are also able to ask ourselves what we can do to improve employee engagement. So, let’s have a closer look at this pivotal theory.

William Kahn’s theory of employee engagement

Parallels can be drawn between the findings of Kahn’s 1990 study, Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work, and the research into human motivation by psychologists such as Frederick Herzberg and Ryan & Deci. However, it wasn’t Kahn’s intention to build on these theories at the time. Instead he sought to conduct his own research by observing and analysing workplace behaviour.

His research involved two workplace studies: the first in a summer camp and the second in an architecture firm. Through his time in these organisations, he defined engagement as an employee’s ability to harness their « full self » at work, and identified three psychological conditions that enable it:

  1. Meaningfulness: Does an employee find their work meaningful enough (to the organisation and to society) to warrant them engaging their full self?
  2. SafetyDoes the employee feel safe bringing their full self to work without risk of negative consequences?
  3. Availability: Does the employee feel mentally and physically able to harness their full self at this particular moment?

His findings separate engagement from everyday hard work. A diligent employee, who is able to harness their full self, will display loyalty and ownership. For example, an engaged employee will tackle tasks without being asked because they want to, and because they believe that their extra effort will benefit their organisation.

Kahn also found that engagement isn’t static – an employee’s experiences of the workplace in different moments can cause fluctuations in engagement. This is good news for employers, as they have the opportunity to create an environment where engagement can flourish.

The Psychology of Employee Engagement eBook. Free download.

Applying Kahn’s theory of employee engagement

In a 2015 interview with Workforce Magazine, William Kahn summarised how managers could apply his theory:

« Approach employees as true partners, involving them in continuous dialogues and processes about how to design and alter their roles, tasks and working relationships – which means that leaders need to make it safe enough for employees to speak openly of their experiences at work. »William Kahn Organisational Psychologist

We’ve all read about how the informal and non-hierarchical approaches of companies like Google create a confident and innovative workforce. However, behind all the quirkiness lie policies that recognise the importance of the individual. “Don’t just treat them like an employee”, Microsoft’s Caitlin Duffy says. “Treat them like a real person”. As Kahn highlighted, engagement occurs when a person is able to « harness their full selves » to their work.

Google’s Project Aristotle studied 180 teams within the organisation, looking for patterns of successful collaboration. They found that teams built on “psychological safety” were the most successful. These teams were characterised by empathy, openness and not wearing a “work face” – all key factors for engagement.

The most important thing an employer can do is develop a supportive culture that allows people to be themselves, where they are « safe » from unwarranted control or criticism. You don’t need a big budget or sophisticated facilities to understand the needs of your employees through focus groups, feedback surveys or working parties. It pays to simply listen.

Understanding Kahn’s theories as employee engagement drivers

How can we act on Kahn’s employee engagement theory, and use his research to motivate our teams?

Kahn’s « meaningfulness » is embodied by our Meaningful Work driver. In practice, we need to make sure that the employee understands the value and impact their role has to the whole. It’s this genuine appreciation of making a contribution that motivates individuals to commit themselves fully to their role.

We see Kahn’s concept of safety in our Freedom of Opinions. Work should be a safe space for employees to voice their views without fear of reprisals – think about Google’s Project Aristotle working groups.

Kahn’s availability concept encompasses many aspects of the workplace. The physical Environment needs to be right for a person to apply themselves. For example, does an employee have all the equipment they need to get their job done, and do they have the space to work individually and collaboratively? Management Support and Peer Relationships reflect the interpersonal connections that enable an employee to harness their full self. All in all, the goal is to make sure that we are creating the right environment and culture for engagement to flourish.

It’s fair to say that employee engagement theory revolutionised management practices. Its impact is extensive, from increased customer happiness, to high staff retention and, of course, the satisfaction of knowing that your team is genuinely happy. And thanks to William Kahn, employers around the world are able to harness its power.

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