Employee Engagement Definition

Verint Team September 16, 2013

In “A Historical Perspective of Employee Engagement: An Emerging Definition”, Michael Bradley Shuck and Karen K. Wollard study the evolution of the term employee engagement and synthesize a possible consensus definition. Why is employee engagement an important concept? Shuck and Wollard write:

Employee engagement has generated a great deal of interest in recent years as a widely used term in organizations and consulting firms (Macey & Schneider, 2008) especially as credible evidence points toward an engagement-profit linkage (Czarnowsky, 2008). Employee engagement has been characterized as “a distinct and unique construct that consists of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components . . . associated with individual role performance” (Saks, 2005, p. 602). Engaged employees often display a deep, positive emotional connection with their work and are likely to display attentiveness and mental absorption in their work (Saks, 2006). Although engaged employees are consistently more productive, profitable, safer, healthier, and less likely to leave their employer (Fleming & Asplund, 2007; Wagner & Harter, 2006), only 30% of the global workforce is estimated to be engaged (Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002; Saks, 2006). Nonetheless, despite continued evidence of linkages to positive business outcomes, employee engagement is declining (Czarnowsky, 2008).

The first published use of the term employee engagement was in the Academy of Management Journal article “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” (W. Kahn, 1990), but since then many varied and conflicting definitions of employee engagement have made it difficult to compare and contrast research findings. To determine a common definition, Shuck and Wollard reviewed 140 articles that mentioned employee engagement and observed four areas of consistency or inconsistency:

  1. Engagement is a personal decision, not an organizational decision as implied by some definitions.
  2. While early definitions treated engagement as an atomic concept, later definitions divided it into three basic concepts: emotional, behavioral and cognitive engagement.
  3. Employee engagement has “no physical properties, but is manifested and often measured behaviorally”. Different definitions look at behavior as the employee’s basic job performance or extended effort or the success of the employer.
  4. Employee engagement is about the behaviors that meet or exceed organizational goals.

Synthesizing the reviewed definitions, Shuck and Wollard define employee engagement as “an emergent and working condition as a positive cognitive, emotional, and behavioral state directed toward organizational outcomes”.

Given the growing importance of linking employee engagement to customer loyalty and business profits, standardizing on a common definition for the term provides an important foundation for future research.