Forget about engagement

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Dr. Matt Grawitch has an excellent post at St. Louis University's Professional Perspectives blog titled: "A Psychologically Healthy Workplace: Some Things to Keep in Mind." Here's a quote about engagement.

"Engagement is about feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally present while you are completing your work tasks. Being present means you’re not distracted by worries at home. Being present means you’re not thinking about something else you’d rather be doing. True, your boss can have a positive impact on the engagement experience, but there are many factors that can influence 'presence.'"

The use of "presence" in the definition of engagement goes back to the early 1990s and pre-dates the Gallup research that sparked the current engagement fad. I hadn't thought about that definition in years, but when I read Matt's post, a lot of things clicked into place.

The most important was the fact that "engagement" at work is affected by factors of all kinds, some of which are outside of work. Here's a summary quote from Matt's article.

"Engagement is about feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally present while you are completing your work tasks. Being present means you’re not distracted by worries at home. Being present means you’re not thinking about something else you’d rather be doing. True, your boss can have a positive impact on the engagement experience, but there are many factors that can influence 'presence.'"

Read the whole post, but remember this. If presence is the way we define engagement, then non-work factors affect it. If you're a boss, those are things you can't do much about.

Boss's Bottom Line

Forget about trying to define "engagement" or creating it among your team members. Instead concentrate on what you can control and do a good boss's job. You may not increase "engagement," whatever that is, but you're more like wind up with high morale and productivity, which make a pretty good substitute.

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  • 4/26/2011 9:58 PM Mike Myatt wrote:
    Hi Wally:

    An interesting post to be sure. That said, defining engagement solely or even largely on the basis of presence is simplistic at best. Distraction is part of life, and while impacting engagement, it does not negate it. Likewise, presence, or lack thereof, should not be accepted as the basis for which to discount value of engagement.

    While presence is a consideration, so is passion, focus, intent, commitment, participation, etc.

    Thanks as always for the thought provoking material Wally.
    Reply to this
  • 4/27/2011 8:38 AM Mary Jo Asmus wrote:
    Great thoughtful post, Wally. However, I beg to differ with the statement that "If presence is the way we define engagement, then non-work factors affect it. If you're a boss, those are things you can't do much about." I too, believed that was true until recently.

    However you define engagement or presence - the boss can do something about non-work factors that affect it. The boss can support and encourage healthy habits. The boss can encourage time off when appropriate.

    I've been completely humbled over the last couple of years by leaders who visibly model and support healthy, balanced lifestyles for their employees because they've recognized that people bring their whole selves to work. So they speak to employees about the importance of getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising; and they provide appropriate time off when problems outside of work become evident. They've realized that when the whole self is not healthy or has problems at home, it has an impact on what happens at work; (call it enlightened self interest if you will).

    I'm learning to make sure that my clients consider one non-work goal on their action plans now. Those who step into these "personal" goals are often surprised and successful in becoming more effective at work. Their managers have overwhelmingly supported them in those goals. I'm now a believer that the boss can do something.
    Reply to this
    1. 4/27/2011 8:47 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      You're right, of course, Mary Jo. In my original draft of this post the phrase "except react to them" appeared after "you can't do much about them." I should have left that in. I was trying to get at the idea that you can't do much about the situations themselves, but in trying to say that I implied that you couldn't do anything about their impact on a team member in the workplace. Thanks.

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  • 4/27/2011 10:21 AM Michael Leiter wrote:
    I’d like to raise a couple points on the definition of engagement points in your post.
    In my book with Christina Maslach in 1997 in The Truth About Burnout (long before the current engagement fad) we identified engagement with work as the opposite of burnout. This observation reflected the fact that surveys of employees using the MBI (Maslach Burnout Inventory) identified only a few people experiencing burnout; most were somewhere in the middle and a few reported a very positive experience of worklife.

    Given the burnout is chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy at work, work engagement is feeling energetic, involved, and efficacious at work. This definition of engagement describes a subjective experience.

    The more recent employee engagement activity associated with the Gallup measure is a measure of work conditions (whether your supervisor attends to you, your access to resources, your job assignments). Matt’s definition of engagement quoted in your post is aligned with one of the dimensions of the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES) developed by a group of Dutch researchers including my co-author, Arnold Bakker. The idea of engagement as the opposite of burnout originally prompted the development of this scale, but this group wanted a proactive definition of engagement as a positive construct; they were not satisfied with defining engagement as positive scores on the MBI (although doing so works for me). My book with Arnold Bakker goes into this perspective extensively:

    The UWES defines engagement as vigor, absorption and dedication. Vigor reflects energy (the opposite of exhaustion); dedication reflects involvement (the opposite of cynicism); absorption reflects flow. Matt’s definition seems more aligned with the sense of absorption or flow at work.

    I agree that relabeling an existing construct (flow) with another word (engagement) is not especially useful. But I don’t agree that the definition you quoted for engagement captures the construct very well. Back to your point about what an employer or a boss can influence: A lot of research supports the idea that management controls aspects of the work environment that have a lot of influence on employees’ energy, involvement, and efficacy. So, from my perspective, employers have a big reason to be concerned with engagement. And if you use the Gallup definition of engagement, the entire issue is a set of management actions and responsibilities. The employees’ subjective experience doesn’t show up at all.

    Thanks for a provocative post, Wally
    Reply to this
    1. 4/27/2011 12:14 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thank you, Michael for the insights and citations. There's a lot to think about there and hold up to both Matt's post and many of the current definitions of "engagement." My own practice is in a slightly different part of the forest where I want to help working bosses identify and master the things they can say and do to improve the quality of the work environment and your work helps me do that.

      Reply to this
    2. 4/27/2011 1:14 PM Matt Grawitch wrote:
      Michael: I couldn't agree more regarding engagement being about physical, mental, and emotional elements.

      In my blog, I specifically mention this:

      "In layman’s terms, it means you are harnessing every ounce of you – your energy, your concentration, your emotion – and applying it to what you are doing at the moment. That is the engagement experience."

      When I refer to presence, I mean being physically, mentally, and emotionally present. Not just present in the mental sense.

      By the way, a lot of my understanding of work engagement comes from the work being done by Schaufeli and colleagues. I think there understanding of the engagement experiences is substantially more advanced than that of most "consulting firms."
      Reply to this
  • 4/27/2011 1:19 PM Matt Grawitch wrote:
    Wally, thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post! I'm glad you found my blog posting to be insightful.

    I don't necessarily think that bosses cannot affect engagement. I think bosses, though, need to understand that there is more to engagement than just effective supervision. It involves working to develop a work environment that promotes the engagement experience, that supports the minimizing of distractions and lack of fit, and that encourages flexibility so that people can have the autonomy to be engaged.

    Unfortunately, the popular understanding of engagement focuses way to much on management style and communication and neglects other very critical elements. Love to talk to you about it more sometime!

    Reply to this
    1. 4/28/2011 4:28 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Matt. One thing I liked about your post is that it reminded me that many factors outside of work can have an impact on whether a person is engaged at work. This is not exactly breaking news. Every boss who has ever had a team member go through a divorce has experienced it first hand, but it's good to be reminded.

      Reply to this
  • 4/27/2011 1:23 PM Miriam Gomberg wrote:
    Wally, after a recent incident at work I am now of the impression that sometimes what you think may positively affect someone's engagement actually has does the opposite.

    I am a full-time MBA student, and work full-time as well. My boss thought that it would help my engagement at work if I were to stop going to school and concentrate fully on my job.

    This put me in a depressed state of mind because I pride myself in my job and in my classes.

    Fortunately, the situation has been rectified but at what cost? I no longer feel as though I can trust my boss. Any suggestions as to how to move on from here? Miriam
    Reply to this
    1. 4/28/2011 4:31 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for sharing that, Miriam. I think you actually raise a larger issue which is that (at least for me) a boss should be concerned with both accomplishing the mission and caring for team members. It also shows that concentrating on one thing (in this case engagement) alone often gets you into trouble.

      Reply to this
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