Employee Engagement: One Step Backward, Two Steps Forward

Employee Engagement:  One Step Backward, Two Steps Forward

Thirty years ago, a children’s camp tennis coach named William Kahn became interested in people’s experiences and connections to work. Studying camp counsellors and architects, William became the grandfather of employee engagement with his seminal article, ’Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work’, published in the December 1990 issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

What does that have to do with today’s landscape where work may be forever altered? While it’s tempting — comforting even — to focus on the future through this period of change, sometimes to move forward we need to take a step backward. We believe there is great value in revisiting William Kahn’s ideas and anchoring ourselves to the unchanged fundamentals of what makes people and organisations successful.

Here are four elements from his quintessential article to help us move ahead with engagement in 2021.

1. Personal engagement

Dr. Kahn called what he studied personal engagement (more commonly known today as employee engagement). Work is personal. When engagement is seen as personal it is also seen as more portable. It helps employees adjust to the changes and uncertainty inherent in employment during these times. That may mean taking the responsibility of keeping a project moving today, or getting onboard with a transformation initiative tomorrow.

In an interview Dr. Kahn stated:

The industry focus is on how leaders can get people to work harder and with more energy on behalf of their organizations, with less focus on whether people are bringing their best, cherished selves into that work. I think that the power of the ideas about personal engagement gets lost in that reimagined focus.

William Kahn

In practice, this lack of focus on the personal creates a fragmented and sometimes exhausting employee experience. Every new goal is launched to fanfare and pep talks to achieve what engagement intrinsically delivers — people who care about what the company is trying to achieve.

2. Psychological safety

William Kahn declared that one of the three key factors driving engagement was psychological safety. When people were safe they felt able to show and employ themselves without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career. It seems that a focus on psychological safety was lost in the decades after Kahn’s paper, until Amy Edmondson did an excellent job of bringing it back. With many of the social cues that foster safety now lost in a world of remote or hybrid working, improving online interpersonal communication and group facilitation is paramount for many managers.

3. Availability

Given all the changes and threats of 2020, many of us struggled with feeling capable of investing ourselves in our work because we felt we lacked the physical, emotional, and psychological resources for our work. While our lives may hopefully reach a semblance of normality in the coming year, the pace of business change will accelerate faster than ever. We must therefore understand the resources and information available to employees. These build capacity and the energy required for change, increasing the likeness that a strategic initiative will succeed.

4. Moments and anecdotes

A final element that stood out from Kahn’s work was his method. He focused on moments and story. One of his central questions was to ask his research participants: ”I’d like you to think about a time when you’ve been attentive and interested in what you’re doing, felt absorbed and involved. A time when you didn’t think about how you’d rather be doing something else, and you didn’t feel bored. Can you describe a particular time when you’ve felt like that here at work?”

He strived to identify the experiences that led people to believe what they were doing was meaningful. In our own work with engagement data and feedback, we must look beyond survey scores and instead use individual stories and the collective employee voice when we architect job roles and position the purpose of our organisations.

Over the past 30 years, the gap between businesses that truly value and leverage engagement and the rest has grown. The term took on a life of its own, leading many to confuse engagement with merely the act of sending a survey. Not surprisingly, they saw diminishing returns as a result. As Individuals, we can make engagement a vital part of our approach to work.

In an interview with Dr. Kahn (January 2017), David Zinger asked him: “What do you believe would be the most important thing individuals can do to enhance their own engagement? What about an organization?” His response:

Simply becoming aware of engagement as a compelling dimension of one’s work life, or as a facet of the organizational context, is a really useful start. I find that it is the questions that matter most: Am I engaged? When do I like myself at work? When do I feel safe enough to say and act according to what I think and feel? Posing these questions, and having the courage to both answer them honestly and follow where those answers lead, is itself the beginning of real engagement at work. And, too, posing these questions on behalf of the organization — What are we creating here, together? — is an act of engaged leadership.

William Kahn

A brief revisit of Kahn’s seminal work shows that — at a time when organisations will be asking for more from their people — we will benefit from reconnecting with the personal element of engagement, psychological safety, availability, and putting the stories of engagement front and centre. As George Santayana said, ”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”