Employee Engagement

Re-engaging With William Kahn 25 Years After He Coined Term Employee Engagement

By Andie Burjek

Dec. 14, 2015

Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Today it’s not uncommon to see article after article about the ubiquitous term employee engagement, such as: “This percentage of employees are disengaged,” a study finds; “How do I keep my employees engaged?” one article asks; and “How does engagement affect overall business?” another wonders.

Although a popular talking point now, the term “employee engagement” is relatively new. Professor William Kahn of Boston University coined “engagement” in terms of the workforce setting 25 years ago in his 1990 paper, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.”

Workforce caught up with Kahn via email to discuss the genesis of the term, its evolution over the past 25 years and what leaders can do to re-engage the disengaged.

Workforce: Before you first used the word ‘engagement’ in the business setting, how did you identify the problem of employees being disengaged?

William Kahn: The presenting issues revolved around employees’ lack of motivation and involvement. People were often doing only what needed to be done, as defined and directed by others, and their work had very little of their own personal selves, very little of what they thought and felt ought to happen as they went about their work. Managers did not really understand the problems, which they thought had to do with employees not being the right fit for the job or not being rewarded enough for their work.

WF: What was the ‘aha’ moment when you hit on engagement as a business case? Why did you use that word, that terminology?

Kahn: There was no particular ‘aha’ moment. It was simply the accumulation of noticing, studying and writing about employees who were unfulfilled at work, and why that might be. I used ‘engagement’ and ‘disengagement’ because those words evoke very clearly the movements that people make toward and away from their work, other people and the roles that they had. Engagement is a word that suggests betrothal — the decision to commit to a role, an identity and a relationship that offers fulfillment.

WF: Why was it an issue then?

Kahn: Leaders of organizations had very little understanding of modern concepts of empowerment, and believed that motivating others was mostly a matter of hiring the right people and giving them the right incentives. The engagement concept was developed based on the premise that individuals can make real choices about how much of their real, personal selves they would reveal and express in their work. That premise was radically different than the operating assumptions of the time.

WF: Has employee engagement evolved or is it still rooted in the same problems as 25 years ago?

Kahn: The problems are much the same, although there is more sophistication about how they appear and are dealt with. The problems of giving people voice over what they do and how they do it, of ensuring that people find their work intrinsically meaningful, and enabling them to craft their roles still exist, as managers wish to exert control over others when they are made anxious by the demands to produce and perform.

WF: What’s your one key way to improve engagement?

Kahn: Approach employees as true partners, involving them in continuous dialogues and processes about how to design and alter their roles, tasks and working relationships — which means that leaders need to make it safe enough for employees to speak openly of their experiences at work.

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at Workforce.com.

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