Back to Basics: Understanding Employee Engagement

Do you know how your employees feel about their jobs or their managers? Do you fully understand the dynamics between individuals or teams? Are you aware of the factors determining their high results or, on the contrary, their underperformance?

Organizations have come to realize that, in today's competitive market, people are the most important asset and business success directly depends on them. This means not just attracting top talents, but also keeping them happy and involved, sharing the organization's goals and mission.

In this guide, you will learn about:

What is employee engagement?

Over the past 10 years, employee engagement has become a buzzword in the business environment and generated a lot of research, especially since new industries like IT emerged. Even if the origins of engagement are as old as mankind itself, HR specialists and managers need to understand its modern implications and adapt to the current challenges.

We shall try to decode what is employee engagement as implemented by organizations today. Follow us further to gain a much deeper insight into this concept.

Everyone believes that engagement is a positive thing, however, there isn't a coherent approach to define the concept. Its significance is often used interchangeably with other organizational terms such as "satisfaction", "commitment", and "motivation". In an attempt to clarify its meaning, we present below a selection of the most influential definition and their authors.

William Kahn firstly conceptualized the engagement at work concept. According to Kahn, "in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances.''

Stairs, Galpin, Page & Linley define the employee engagement concept as "The extent to which employees thrive at work, are committed to their employer and are motivated to do their best, for the benefit of themselves and their organization".

Robinson, Perryman & Hayday identify it as "A positive attitude held by the employee towards the organization and its values. An engaged employee is aware of business context and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organization".

Gallup, a recognized global performance management consulting company, refers to engagement as "The individual's involvement and satisfaction with as well as enthusiasm for work".

Hay Group, a top management consulting firm, defines engaged performance as “a result that is achieved by stimulating employees' enthusiasm for their work and directing it toward organizational success. This result can only be achieved when employers offer an implicit contract to their employees that elicits specific positive behaviors aligned with the organization's goals”.

The Conference Board, a prestigious non-profit US organization, came up with a comprehensive definition from twelve major studies: "a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work".

Exploring different employee engagement models

Taking into consideration the diversity of definitions, a helpful approach is to analyze what things they have in common and determine the major factors that have an impact on engagement. As the concept has grown and expanded, many practitioners or consulting companies went the extra mile and conducted thorough research to create their frameworks. We invite you to read below about five of these models.

  1. Sirota's Three-Factor Model
  2. The RAMP Model of Intrinsic Motivators
  3. SCARF Model
  4. Job demands-resources model
  5. Schaufeli's model on engagement

A. Sirota's Three-Factor Model

This model has been developed by the Sirota company acquired by Mercer, the world's largest human resources consulting firm, and it is heavily evidence-based, using extensive employee survey data that span over 40 years. Sirota's research on engagement identified cognitive, affective, and behavioral components (or how the employees think, feel and act), thus allowing them to differentiate between three types of individuals:

  • Intellectually Engaged employees bring their analytical and creative resources to generate innovations for the company, having an effective state of mind at work.
  • Emotionally Engagedemployees are driven by positive beliefs and feel great passion and dedication to the company.
  • Behaviorally Engaged employees express their loyalty and commitment to the company and promote a pleasant manner of acting inside the team and toward the customers.

As shown in the image below, Sirota's Three-Factor Model is centered around the following primary engagement factors:

  • Achievement - Being deeply involved with job duties and feeling proud of personal and organizational success.
  • Camaraderie - Having friendly, collaborative relations at work and being guided by a “one team” approach.
  • Equity - Being respected fairly and meeting the basic expectations regarding the organization and employment in general.

Sirota's Three-Factor Model of Engagement. Source: Sirota.

B. The RAMP Model of Intrinsic Motivators

This model has been developed by the Washington State Office of Financial Management, Human Resources Division, and it is based on the research conducted in governmental agencies from 2006 until the present. In their perspective, employee engagement and employee experience, in general, are centered around four key intrinsic motivators: relationships, autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Relationships - The desire to be connected to others and treated with respect.

As social beings by nature, individuals seek to communicate with others and feel that they are appreciated by them. In the work environment, this need occupies an important place and organizations have to create occasions where people can share their ideas and collaborate toward common goals.

Autonomy - The desire to have freedom in one's job.

Beyond all the rigid processes and procedures established by continuous growing organizations, autonomy is a necessary thing that empowers the confidence of the employees and allows them to be more creative for finding the best solutions in their work.

Mastery - The desire to develop skills and expertise.

We all wish to have each day new experiences to learn and grow together with the organization. For a fulfilling career path, employees need to have opportunities at work to put their skills into practice, gradually gain more knowledge and reach their full potential.

Purpose - The desire for meaningful work.

Having a sense of purpose and sharing the organization's vision, mission, values, and goals can unlock the highest level of motivation of all. This is achieved through transparency and clear communication from the leaders, prioritizing the connection between people and helping them see both the small and the big picture of the business.

C. David Rock's SCARF Model

The author of this model, Dr. David Rock, coined the term 'Neuroleadership' and is recognized as one of the experts from the field. His experience as a coach, teacher, and public speaker on international events has been shared with the public in many scientific papers and best-seller books. His studies revealed five major factors that significantly influence organizational engagement by activating a threat or a reward response. They can be best remembered by the acronym SCARF:

  • S - Status
  • C - Certainty
  • A - Autonomy
  • R - Relatedness
  • F - Fairness

Status, or the importance relative to others, refer to the position occupied by an employee in a company. It is not just about the hierarchical position, but also the impact, the added value brought by that person. When the employees' status is not clear - they are not sure about the tasks to be done, sudden changes appear in their work - they feel a threat toward their status, have difficulties in focusing on their job and their engagement decreases. The performance review sessions are an example of organizational situations that can trigger a threat or a reward response, depending on the skills of the assessors. When applying this model, leaders should highlight the work is done and the improvements, acknowledging the efforts made and also allowing the employees to provide their feedback.

Certainty, or the ability to anticipate the future, refers to the degree to which employees feel that the organizational context is clear and predictable for them. If the company passes through a period of change and uncertainty, threat responses can appear and people lose focus on their activities. A high degree of certainty can be achieved by transparent communication across all organizational levels and by setting clear expectations and professional goals. As employees feel more psychological and emotionally secure at the workplace, their initiative and engagement will gradually increase.

Autonomy, or exerting control over events, is the third factor that has a substantial effect on our response to stress. When employees feel more autonomous, they are much more resistant to stress and, on the other side, when they feel less autonomous, they sense the surrounding pressure, and dysfunctionalities might appear within the teams. For the best results, micro-management should be avoided and instead, the employees should be involved in the decision-making process and feel that their choice is valued. This can help them evolve and reach their full potential at work.

Relatedness, or the sense of connection with others, is a vital part of a productive team. New organizational situations can activate threat or reward depending on the approach. From a neuroscientific perspective, a comfortable team environment generates oxytocin in our brain, which disarms the threat response, enhances empathy and allows us to see other people as similar to us. Thus, real communication occasions need to be created, both onsite and offsite, to shape trust between employees and feel like being part of the same team.

Fairness, or the fair exchanges between people, is another key factor that can be decisive for work engagement. A threat response from feeling treated unfairly can be triggered easily. Large organizations have more interactions where the employees can feel discriminated against, but this can also appear in small companies where the relationships between colleagues are much closer. A challenging subject is related to salary discrepancies. Many employees can be deeply frustrated if they feel that some other colleagues gain more than them and maybe with not so much effort. Fairness can be achieved by having clear salary levels, a transparent evaluation system with agreed performance indicators, and of course a continuous communication with the employees.

David Rock's SCARF Model. Source: Better teams.

D. Job demands-resources model

Another influential approach for predicting engagement is centered on well-being and talks about demands vs. resources. This model states that, contrary to what we might think, engagement cannot be measured directly. It is a state that doesn't depend on the personality of the individual, but rather on the context of the work.

Each job has some demands required from the individual, pressures that come from the interaction with the managers, colleagues, nature of work, goals, etc. In the same way, the context of work provides employees with resources. One of them is the extent to which an employee can have control over his/her job: for example, he/she has a lot of work but is allowed to work whenever he/she wants. Another resource is the meaning of work. The support from managers or colleagues, the feedback received also represents resources.

The centerpiece of the model says that no matter how many demands there are, if the resources are greater than the demands, then we have engagement. However, if there are fewer resources than demands, then the employee will experience burnout.

This approach is as important as many managers believe that the key to employee satisfaction is to diminish the demands. However, this is wrong and goes directly to failure. There are studies about the negative effects of boredom at work and a bored employee is as bad as an employee experiencing depression or exhaustion.

E. Schaufeli's model on engagement

Almost two decades ago, leading organizational psychologist Wilmar Schaufeli, considered one of the most influential researchers in the field of management and an authority on the psychology of work and organizations, was able to demonstrate the clear link between performance and engagement.

According to his model, engagement is a “positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption”. Let's see what each factor is about.

Vigor refers to high levels of energy and mental resilience when carrying out work activities. It truly defines an engaged and proactive person - someone who has the physical energy to go the extra mile and is willing to make a “discretionary effort”.

Dedication refers to having a high degree of involvement in work and feeling significance, enthusiasm, and challenge. A dedicated employee shows a lot of enthusiasm about the organization, its mission, and can make a contribution to the team and a larger goal.

Absorption refers to being fully concentrated on work. Such employees don't just want to do the work as soon as possible, but to do it in the best possible way.

Wilmar Schaufeli works also as a profesor of work and organizational psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Find below one of the recordings of the workshop on improoving employee psychological wellbeing:

Why is employee engagement important?

Growing engagement can have valuable benefits. Check below our favorites!

Engagement boosts the company's productivity

Research shows that engagement levels affect staff turnover, absenteeism, innovation, productivity and, finally, profit. In the survey "The State of Employee Engagement in 2020" conducted by and the HR Research Institute, 90% of the participants considered that the engagement is linked to the overall company performance and highly engaged organizations are more than twice as likely to report being top financial performers in their industries.

Engaged employees are motivated to provide discretionary effort

When people are engaged at work, they often show a willingness to go the extra mile. Their effort can be seen as going beyond their standard job description, helping their colleagues for an important project or working overtime in some cases. However, they can't be considered workaholics, but rather genuinely energized and dedicated individuals.

The same survey mentioned above shows that only 44% strongly agree or agree that employees in their organization give discretionary effort, suggesting that this area continues to be a challenge for most companies.

Engaged employees are committed to the organization

Engaged employees tend to be highly committed to their organization. They feel personally connected to their organization and are rarely tempted to search for a career change elsewhere.

The figures from the Gallup national report show that the percentage of “engaged” workers in the USA - those who are enthusiastic, motivated, committed to their work and organization - is 34% for 2018 compared to 37% for 2017. However, despite this positive trend, the majority of American workers remain “unengaged” at work, 53% of the participants declaring that they do not feel a cognitive or emotional connection with their company.

Engaged employees are proud and willing to recommend

Isn't every company's dream to be considered an “employer of choice”? For developing a successful business, organizations strive to attract and retain the best employees on the market. Besides having an excellent image among competitors, the process can be also facilitated by the engaged employees who are often eager to recommend their organization to others as a great place to work.

At the same time, it is becoming more and more popular for companies to implement referral schemes, where current employees can recommend family and friends to the HR department for open vacancies. For having great results with this type of program in a constantly challenging market, organizations need to foster engagement and also design a stimulating system of referral incentives.

Engagement is contagious

Positive behaviors of engagement are contagious. When people see others showing behaviors of engagement, they are more likely to adopt them too. Wilmar Schaufeli calls it an 'upward gain spiral'. If there are high levels of communication and interaction, engagement tends to cross over to work partners. This happens not only between individuals but also between teams.

Employee engagement survey sample template

One way to understand the level of engagement between your employees is by surveying them. The purpose is to dive deep into the obvious and not-so-obvious aspects of your organization that influence the engagement of its individuals and teams.

So, whether you are a small business or a large corporation, choose the right tools and the results will soon appear. There are plenty of examples of good questions to help you with this process. Be free to use our survey questions template below or maybe get inspired by the Gallup's rigorous research on engagement - their famous Q12 Index can be consulted in this report. An engaged workplace is only 12 questions away!

  1. Do you feel challenged and excited by your work?
  2. Do you know what it takes to be successful in your role?
  3. Do you have access to resources/information to do your job well?
  4. Can you easily see how your work has an impact on the company's overall success?
  5. In the last six months, did you receive feedback from your manager?
  6. Do you feel heard and valued by your manager?
  7. Is your manager a great role model for employees?
  8. Do you feel working as “one team” with your colleagues?
  9. Does your organization provide you with the opportunity for learning and development?
  10. Do you see career growth opportunities for yourself in this organization?
  11. Do you feel proud to be part of this company?
  12. Would you recommend your company as a great place to work?

Download the Employee engagement survey template

Employee engagement survey sample