For the last few years many of our clients have been focused on organisational development – ensuring that their structures and processes were fit for current and anticipated future purposes. Their focus now seems to be changing to employee engagement. So what is it and how do you achieve it?

As with many buzz words, there is no one clear definition. Here are four:

“Engagement is about creating opportunities for employees to connect with their colleagues, managers and wider organisation. It is also about creating an environment where employees are motivated to want to connect with their work and really care about doing a good job…It is a concept that places flexibility, change and continuous improvement at the heart of what it means to be an employee and an employer in a twenty-first century workplace.” (Katie Truss, Professor of Management (Business and Management at the University of Sussex).

“A positive attitude held by the employee towards the organisation and its values. An engaged employee is aware of the business context, and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organisation. The organisation must work to develop and nurture engagement, which requires a two-way relationship between employee and employer.” (Institute of Employment Studies).

“A set of positive attitudes and behaviours enabling high job performance of a kind which are in tune with the organisation’s mission.” (John Storey, Professor of Cultural Studies, University of Sunderland).

“Employee engagement is a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being” (David Guest, Professor of Social Science and Public Policy at Kings College, London).

So is employee engagement an attitude, a behaviour, an outcome, or possibly all three?

Psychologists define attitudes as a learned tendency to evaluate things in a certain way. Such evaluations can be positive or negative, but they can also be uncertain at times. Research suggests attitude is made up of two components, an emotional component and a cognitive component. The emotional component is about how the object, person, issue or event makes you feel, whilst the cognitive component is about your thoughts and beliefs about the subject. Clearly then, in order to change attitudes you firstly need to change people’s beliefs so that they believe and engage positively in what the business wants to achieve and at the same time they feel that doing so will be of positive benefit to themselves, their colleagues and the business.

There are differences between attitude, behaviour and outcomes in terms of engagement. An employee might feel pride and loyalty (attitude); be a great advocate of their company to clients, or go the extra mile to finish a piece of work (behaviour). Outcomes may include lower accident rates, higher productivity, fewer conflicts, more innovation, lower numbers leaving and reduced sickness rates. However, all three, attitudes, behaviours and outcomes, are part of the engagement story. When the pre-conditions of engagement are me, these three aspects of engagement trigger and reinforce one another and the process becomes largely self-sustaining.

Engaged organisations have strong and authentic values, with clear evidence of trust and fairness based on mutual respect, where two way promises and commitments between employers and staff are understood, and are fulfilled.

Although improved performance and productivity is at the heart of engagement, it cannot be achieved by a mechanistic approach which tries to extract discretionary effort by manipulating employees’ commitment and emotions. Employees see through such attempts very quickly; they lead instead to cynicism and disillusionment. By contrast, engaged employees freely and willingly give discretionary effort, not as an ‘add on’, but as an integral part of their daily activity at work.

In particular, engagement is two way: organisations must work to engage the employee, who in turn has a choice about the level of engagement to offer the employer. Each reinforces the other.

Engagement is measurable but the measurement of engagement is not an exact science. However survey tools and questionnaires such as An Even Better Place to Work, allow levels of ‘engagement’ within an organisation to be measured at team, department and whole organisation level, enabling direct comparisons to be made.