There is a terrific amount of opinion, written and otherwise, about employee engagement. But it looks as though what Gertrude Stein said about her home town of Oakland, California, is also true of employee engagement: “there is no there there.”
If you can deal with the challenge, you’ll want to go through Rob Briner’s thought piece on employee engagement from the perspective of evidence-based decision making. It’s readable, straight-forward and solid. As Briner’s article states up-front, he intends to “stimulate deeper and more critical thinking about employee engagement from an evidence-based practice perspective.”Briner is Professor of Organizational Psychology at the University of Bath (UK) and a leader in the field of evidence-based management.
Briner reveals that the current status of evidence on employee engagement is not a pretty picture.
The Evidence Based Management Collaborative is located at Carnegie Mellon and includes both academics and practitioners. EBMC focuses on empirical research, exactly what you’ll gain from Rosenzweig’s brilliant book, The Halo Effect. Briner also has a superb picture of the evidence hierarchy, with “expert opinion, anecdotes and case studies" at the bottom of the hierarchy.
The thought piece, excerpted below, addresses two fundamental questions about engagement:
- Do increases in engagement cause increases in performance?
- Do engagement interventions cause increased levels of engagement and subsequent increases in performance?
Following is a brief summary of the five major issues the paper addresses:
1. Defining engagement. Nobody agrees on what it is. . . . This mess should profoundly trouble all of us. Without a clear and agreed definition of engagement we literally do not know or understand what we’re talking about or what we’re doing.
2. Measuring engagement. Since there’s no clear definition of engagement, there’s little possibility of valid measurement. Although many measures exist the available evidence does not suggest these measures are of much value.
3. Engagement is nothing new or different. Looking carefully across the many and various definitions and descriptions of engagement it is difficult if not impossible to identify how in any important sense it is new or different. . . . Proponents of engagement certainly do appear to strongly believe that it is something new and different. However, much work needs to be done to demonstrate that this is the case.
4. There is almost no good quality evidence with which to answer the most important questions about engagement. In general, then, it appears that at the current time there is a large quantity of poor quality evidence and very little or no good quality or high quality evidence with which to answer the two basic questions: Does engagement do anything and, if so, can organizations do anything about engagement?
5. Over-claiming and mis-claiming the importance and role of engagement. The four challenges discussed above, defining engagement, measuring engagement, establishing whether engagement is anything new, and the lack of good quality evidence are each fairly serious. Taken together, they raise questions about the potential value of engagement to practitioners. However, there is one further significant challenge which is, in part, a natural consequence of the previous four: That the proponents, supporters and advocates of engagement both over-claim by exaggerating the quantity and quality of evidence and mis-claim by making statements about engagement that, on closer inspection, seem to be about something else. . . .
Don’t misunderstand this key research issue: The fact that there is no research supporting employee engagement does not mean that research rejects employee engagement as a performance tool. It may well be that in the future good quality evidence will be produced which shows that increasing employee engagement does have important effects on performance and it is possible to increase engagement which in turn increases performance.
Overall the claims made by proponents of employee engagement appear to be exaggerated. The supporting evidence is either irrelevant or non-existent.