Employee Engagement: Redefined

by Bradley Wilson of Perceptyx


The term employee engagement has been around since the early 1990s, but over the past 15 years the drive to engage employees has picked up steam. Despite the fact that the concept that has been around for decades and widely embraced in HR circles, the definition of employee engagement can be surprisingly vague. For some, engagement has merely replaced what was formerly called employee satisfaction; others have adopted an employee engagement definition that encompasses many factors that impact the well-being of individual employees.

In the following chapters, we’ll clarify the answers to the most important questions: What is employee engagement? Why is employee engagement important? And most critically, how can engagement be improved—and not simply measured?

Table Of Contents

Chapter 1: Clarifying The Employee Engagement Definition

Chapter 1: Clarifying The Employee Engagement Definition

Much of the lack of agreement about employee engagement’s definition stems from the evolution from employee satisfaction to employee engagement. Employee satisfaction was the key metric most commonly used in the early years of surveys. Employee satisfaction provided a general view of how employees felt about their company (e.g. are employees satisfied or dissatisfied with the company as a place to work), but it had little or no connection with organization performance. In some studies employee satisfaction was a driver of organization performance, and in other studies performance was a driver of satisfaction. This lack of consistency in the satisfaction-performance relationship did little to convince leaders about the importance of employee opinions and feedback to organization success. Further, the construct of satisfaction represented a passive relationship between the employee and the organization. It reflected satisfaction with what the organization was doing for employees, leaving out the employees’ responsibility to the organization.

Engagement was built upon employee satisfaction by including a behavioral element. While it was important to understand how employees felt about the company, evaluating their willingness to act based on those feelings made all the difference in the relationship with organization performance. No longer was the construct passive or one-way. Engagement focused on what organizations contribute to employees, and what employees are willing to do in return. When it came to the link between employee engagement and organization performance and success, study after study demonstrated that organizations with higher levels of employee engagement were more profitable, had higher levels of customer satisfaction, quality, safety and more. The arrow finally went one way employee engagement to organization success, and the quest to understand and influence engagement took off.

The concept of employee engagement has been widely embraced by HR for well over a decade, but employee engagement remains misunderstood by many people. Some organizations feel they have little to show for the time and effort invested in employee engagement. This is not for a lack of effort; rather it is often misguided effort. To realign our efforts around practices that produce real, strategic change, we must first have a proper definition of engagement, and an understanding of what is keeping people from engaging in the first place.

What questions should you ask your employees to measure engagement? Download our free guide, Using Employee Survey Questions In A People Analytics Practice, to find out.

What Is Employee Engagement? An Employee Engagement Definition

As noted previously, the satisfaction measure some organizations used in the early days of surveys touched on an element of engagement without assessing the full dimension of engagement itself. The construct of engagement built upon that by adding a behavioral dimension. Engagement measured not just how the employee felt about the organization (an emotional attachment) but what the employee was willing to do as a result of that emotional attachment.

Employee engagement measures:

  • The emotional attachment that employees have to the organization, typically measured by pride in the organization and a sense of accomplishment at work.
  • The behaviors resulting from that attachment, typically a willingness to advocate for the organization and a willingness to stay with the organization.

Employee engagement is effectively measured using four questions: two measuring emotional attachment and two measuring the behavioral elements.

Redefining Engagement: Building An Effective Employee Engagement Model

At Perceptyx, we know that engagement is a virtuous cycle: engagement yields higher performance, leading to corporate and personal success, which, in turn, builds higher engagement. The question is: How do we kickstart that engine, and keep it spinning in a positive direction? The answer: by removing barriers.

We have seen that employees will engage with the organization when they can anticipate their own personal success. The employee’s definition of success may include the ability to work with smart colleagues and have an influence on decisions or how work gets done; it could focus on being treated with respect by one’s manager and colleagues, or feeling that the organization is willing to invest in the employee’s growth and development; or it could reflect a confidence in the decisions of leaders and the strategic direction and future of the organization. Regardless, in order to determine the factors that are preventing employees from anticipating their own success within their current organizational environment, we need a better understanding of how engaged employees are experiencing the organization.

Every organization has highly engaged employees. If we can understand what those employees are experiencing in the company we can encourage leaders to do more of that across the entire organization. In effect, we are determining what the organization is already doing right, so leaders and managers can implement those practices across the organization.

To do this, we must first clearly identify the engaged population by measuring the behaviors indicative of full engagement on the job. Organizations will often conflate conditions that inspire engagement with things that are indicators of engagement; measuring those conditions alone do not measure engagement. Engagement is an outcome measure, meaning it grows or declines as a result of all the experiences employees have on the job. While any workplace element can influence engagement, some elements have more influence than others. It is critical to understand which workplace elements have the greatest influence; these areas are where we want to focus action.

Once the engaged population is accurately and clearly defined, their perceptions can be compared against those of the disengaged population. This offers leaders insight into those things that have the greatest influence on employee engagement, and are preventing their employees from experiencing or anticipating success in their role. These drivers—or influencers of engagement—can and do vary by company, by region of the world, by country, by industry, and by company subgroup, such as function, division, or job type. Just as the removal of these barriers can help employees better anticipate achieving their desired measure of success and growing engagement, the act of taking action on survey results builds trust in the organization, further fueling the engagement engine through increased anticipation of success for all.

While analyses of employee perceptions allow us to identify organizational strengths and opportunities, it is the discovery and understanding of the barriers to engagement that are most important to building an engaged workforce. It is only through an analysis of these barriers that we are able to understand what’s getting in the way of greater engagement—and help managers and leaders take action appropriately. When those barriers are eliminated, the anticipation of success yields willingness and ability to apply discretionary effort on the job.

Engagement Isn’t The Only Thing

With all the focus on engagement—an ill-defined term for many people—and with the fact that engagement can fluctuate due to factors outside an organization’s control, our clients are sometimes tempted to throw their hands up in frustration, and we understand the impulse.

As we noted in a previous article, engagement is important, but it’s not the only thing. The measures outlined above specifically don’t include conditions—but those are critical to producing an outcome of engagement. To gain insight into the conditions that may be barriers to engagement, employee feedback is crucial. A survey program that takes employees’ temperature with regular engagement checks—and also allows understanding of the employee experience and the barriers to engagement—is a critical part of building an effective employee engagement model. Though engagement can fluctuate for reasons outside of the organization’s control, if there is a consistent and sustained effort to remove barriers to engagement, the result will be a net positive for the company—and employees.

Benefits Of Employee Engagement

Research has consistently established connections between engagement, performance, and success. What we know is that having engaged employees is a competitive advantage. Because the recipe for achieving engagement is not the same in every company, engagement is a unique competitive advantage that is not easy to replicate. Organizations can’t achieve engagement by copying the actions taken by other companies. Highly engaged organizations have worked hard to build a longer-term focus and insight into their specific employee population. How we can influence engagement and improve it requires deeper understanding than can be gained from a book or copying the actions of other companies.

At Perceptyx, we believe that employees will engage with the organization when they can anticipate their own level of success. (Tweet this!) Engaged employees work harder and smarter, advocate for the organization, and are more likely to stay with the organization for the long term.

Understanding and growing engagement is a primary responsibility for every leader and manager. Engagement is a major influence on the performance of their team—and ultimately, their team’s success.

Now that we’ve defined what engagement is and its indicators, in the next chapter, we’ll examine how to measure it—and most importantly, how to increase employee engagement.



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