Have you ever felt that you have been physically, cognitively or emotionally engaged in your work? Then it could be that you were personally engaged at work. Personal engagement at work is a term that was first defined in Kahn (1990)’s paper titled “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement at Disengagement at Work”. In this paper Kahn studies the psychological conditions required for personal engagement at work, by studying workers at a summer camp and an architectural firm. In this blog post we will explain Kahn’s work engagement theory and how applying it can help you and your employees to remain more engaged at work. Moreover, we provide you with two surveys to measure your engagement at work, so make sure to stay until the end.
Table of contents
- What is engagement and disengagement at work?
- What are the ways people engage in work?
- What are the psychological conditions for engagement at work?
- Why is work engagement important?
- How do you measure work engagement?
What is engagement and disengagement at work?
Kahn defines engagement at work as the employment and expression of self-preference in job tasks, which promotes connection, physical, cognitive and emotional presence and active, full roll performance. In other words, engagement at work entails people choosing to use and express certain aspects of their personal selves when carrying out their work role, in a physical, cognitive and/or emotional manner.
Disengagement on the other hand is the simultaneous withdrawal and defense of a person’s self-preferences in job tasks, leading to a lack of connection, physical, cognitive and emotional absence, and passive, incomplete role performances. In other words, disengagement at work entails people hiding their true identity, thoughts, and feelings during their role performances, thus not employing themselves in a physical, cognitive and/or emotional manner.
What are the ways people engage in work?
As mentioned in the previous section, employee engagement at work entails people using and expressing their personal selves in a physical, cognitive and/or emotional manner at work. In his work engagement theory Kahn explains what is meant by physical, cognitive and emotional presence (and absence) at work by using examples from the summer camp and the architectural firm. Let us go over an example for personal engagement and disengagement to better understand these two concepts.
Physical, cognitive and emotional engagement at work
In the summer camp, a scuba-diving instructor recalled one of his diving expeditions with a special class of advanced divers. In this expedition he was fully personally engaged in completing his role as instructor. Physically he was fully engaged by darting about checking gear and leading the dive. Cognitively he was fully engaged by remaining vigilant and aware of the divers, weather, and marine life. Emotionally he was fully engaged by empathizing with the fear and excitement of the divers. At the same time, he was able to express himself by expressing his love for the ocean and his desire for others to love it as well. Thus, he was fully engaged in his role while at the same expressing his preferred self, showing high levels of personal engagement at work .
Physical, cognitive and emotional disengagement at work
When it comes to disengagement, Kahn provides an example from a senior designer at the architectural firm. This designer withdrew his physical labor by handing off non management tasks to others. He withdrew cognitively by adopting an automatic, uninterested approach led by not questioning others’ decisions.
Finally, he withdrew emotionally by not emphasizing with confused draftspersons and one upset client. Additionally, he suppressed his thoughts and feelings on the projects he worked on, not being able to use and express his preferred self at his work. Thus, he was disengaged in his role while at the same suppressing his preferred self, showing high levels of personal disengagement at work .
What are the psychological conditions for engagement at work?
There are three psychological conditions in work engagement theory whose presence influences people to personally engage at work, while their absence influences people to personally disengage. Let us go over each of the three conditions and the factors that influence them.
This condition refers to a sense of significance and value that individuals attach to their work. People experience psychological meaningfulness when they feel worthwhile, useful, and valuable, meaning that their work is not being taken for granted and is making a difference. Lack of meaningfulness on the other hand, is connected to people’s feeling that little was asked or expected of them, leaving little room for them to give or receive in work role performances. Kahn (1990) identifies three factors that influence psychological meaningfulness: task characteristics, role characteristics and work interactions.
- Task characteristics: When the work individuals do is challenging, clearly delineated, varied, creative, and somewhat autonomous, they are more likely to experience psychological meaningfulness.
- Role characteristics: This factor depends on two components of work roles that influence the experience of psychological meaningfulness. Firstly, whether organization members like or dislike the identities that their work role implicitly requires them to assume. Secondly, that status or influence that the work role carries. Individuals that like the identity and enjoy the status their work role carries are more likely to experience psychological meaningfulness.
- Work interactions: People experience psychological meaningfulness when their role includes rewarding interpersonal interactions with co-workers and clients. Meaningful interactions promote dignity, self-appreciation and a sense of worthwhileness.
This condition is experienced as a feeling of being able to show and employ one’s self (physically, emotionally and/or cognitively) without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status or career. People feel safe when they trust that they won’t suffer for their personal engagement. Work situations that are unclear, inconsistent, unpredictable, or threatening, have lower psychological safety inhibiting personal engagement. The theory of work engagement presents four factors that influence the condition of psychological safety:
- Interpersonal relationships: Interpersonal relationships promote psychological safety when they are supportive and trusting. Members of these relationships are able to share ideas without feeling they will face destructive criticisms, leading to higher levels of personal engagement.
- Group and intergroup dynamics: Within the organization, people assume different unconscious roles, which influence the psychological safety they feel. For example, individuals that have the role of the bosses’ “favorite” may feel more psychological safety, and are more likely to personally engage with their job.
- Management style and process: Psychological safety is heightened by supportive, resilient and clarifying management. Leaders that are able to promote supportiveness and openness in the organization are more able to get their employees to personally engage in their work. Conversely, managers that are unpredictable, inconsistent, hypocritical or do not give their workers a certain autonomy promote a feeling of psychological unsafety amongst their employees.
- Organizational norms: Psychological safety is heightened in job roles that are clearly within the boundaries of organizational norms. In work engagement theory, organizational norms are shared expectations about the general behaviors of system members. Psychological safety is reduced when workers have deviated from norms or have the possibility to do so.
This refers to the feeling of having the physical, emotional or psychological resources to personally engage at a particular moment. It measures how ready individuals in an organization are to personally engage in their work, considering the different distractions they experience when fulfilling their role. Individuals that are psychologically available are more likely to engage than individuals who are not. Four types of distractions are identified in Kahn (1990) that influence psychological availability, these are:
- Physical energy: Personal engagement in work requires levels of physical energy, strength and readiness that personal disengagement does not require. Physical energy depletion reduces the readiness of individuals to engage, reducing their psychological availability, also depending on the physical demands of the work they are doing.
- Emotional energy: The idea is that personally engaging in tasks that require high levels of emotional labor (e.g. a psychologist having to give therapy to depressed patients) takes a higher level of emotionality than personally disengaging. Thus, emotional energy depletion leads to reduced psychological availability in individuals, making it less likely they will engage in their work .
- Insecurity: Psychological availability also relates to how secure people feel about their work and their status. Feeling more secure about this increases the psychological availability of individuals, increasing their chances of personally engaging in their work.
- Outside life: People’s outside lives have the potential of taking them psychologically away from their job, influencing their psychological availability. When events in their non-work lives are preoccupying workers, they are less psychologically available and less likely to personally engage with their work.
This section has presented the different psychological conditions that are required for personal engagement at work, according to the work engagement theory. Yet, this still does not answer an important question, why is work engagement important?
Why is work engagement important?
Having an engaged workforce ultimately benefits both the employer as well as the employees. There are several reasons why work engagement is important, such as:
Better employee well-being
Employees that are more personally engaged in their work, being able to employ and express their preferred selves in their work, are more likely to be happy and content in their job and elsewhere. This improves overall happiness in the workplace, improving company morale and productivity.
Better customer service
Employees that are more engaged and satisfied in their work roles are more likely to treat customers well, giving them a nice customer experience. This is crucial for retaining customers, upselling to them and getting positive customer referrals.
Keeping your employees loyal
Employees that are personally engaged in their work are less likely to want to switch jobs. Thus, employee engagement helps with employee retention. Workers that are not engaged are more likely to search for a new job or accept an offer they receive from another company.
Engaged employees like their work more, meaning that they are more likely to work harder as they believe in what they do and their value for the company. Engaged employees increase overall productivity by 20-25% according to a report by McKinsey & Company.
With higher employee engagement and productivity also comes higher profits. Organizations that are highly engaged experience an average of 20% higher sales as compared to disengaged ones. This is logical when considering employee engagement increases employee retention, leads to better customer service and increases productivity.
More creativity and innovation
Engaged employees are more emotionally invested in their jobs and the company they work for. This increases the likelihood that they will seek to improve the company’s processes, products or services through creative and innovative thinking.
Better employee referrals
Employees that really enjoy(ed) working for your company are more likely to refer someone else to it whenever you have an open position. They will be excited when talking about their work and they can definitely be a driving force in increasing your workforce.
Now that we have gone over some of the reasons why employee engagement is important, one question remains: how do you measure work engagement?
How do you measure work engagement?
Following the principles of work engagement theory, presented in Kahn (1990), engagement is measured through two approaches. Firstly, the inputs are measured, that is, the extent to which you have all the psychological conditions for engagement is measured. Afterwards, the outputs are measured, by measuring your physical, cognitive and emotional engagement at work. Measuring both the inputs and outputs is important as it provides a better explanation of your levels of engagement and what you can do to improve them.
The inputs are measured through measurement scale developed in May et al. (2004). This scale consists of a 14-item list that each serve to capture one of the three conditions required for work engagement: psychological meaningfulness, safety and availability. In the survey used, respondents answer they they agree or disagree with a statement, choosing from five possible answers that go from 1 – “Strongly disagree” to 5 – “Strongly agree”.
The output, your personal engagement level, is measured through the job engagement scale (JES), developed in Rich et al. (2010). The JES measures the engagement of workers by providing them with an 18-item list of statements, that evenly divide to measure the physical, cognitive and emotional engagement of respondents. The respondents need to answer whether they agree or disagree with the statement, choosing from five possible answers that go from 1 – “Strongly disagree” to 5 – “Strongly agree”. Although less popular than other scales to measure job engagement, such as the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale, the JES is deemed to better map the conceptualization of job engagement introduced by Kahn (1990).
How engaged are you at work?
Are you interested in knowing your level of engagement? Great! Here are two free surveys you can fill up to measure your job engagement. The first survey measures the extent to which you have the psychological conditions for personal engagement at work. The second survey measures your levels of physical, cognitive and emotional engagement, using the job engagement scale.
Additionally, in these surveys you will be able to compare your engagement levels to those of other people in your age group, industry and job role as well as get suggestions on how to improve your engagement levels.
What tool did we use for these surveys?
These surveys run on our Survey Analysis and Report Automation system, SARA in short. SARA allows HR consultants to either use standard surveys such as these or create their own surveys and methodologies to serve their clients. Reach out to us if you want to find out more about all the possibilities with SARA.