Tuesday, 14 July 2009

New Perspectives on Engagement

Last week I had a very productive time doing some work with a large multinational company based in Zurich which is doing some really interesting work on employer branding and HR strategy – hello Saskia, Paulo and team. Like all organizations operating in a multinational context, they are struggling with the integration-responsiveness problem discussed in the last blog, which, in part, turns on the need to have employees identify and ‘engage’ with the organization globally and locally. Engagement has become one of the hot topics among HR practitioners, driven mostly by the management consulting industry’s desire to re-invent, re-package and re-fresh tired old ideas that have been around for many years in the academic community such as satisfaction, commitment, organizational citizenship and identity, and psychological contracting, and link them statistically to appealing notions such as share price increases, financial performance and a range of other outcomes.
In a chapter of a book we wrote on corporate reputations and HR in 2006, we criticised this arguably naive and perhaps even cynical attempt by consulting firms to re-invent the wheel and to do so in a with a lack of rigour that hardly justified the huge amounts of money being spent on this new ‘industry’. We examined a number of such approaches and found little or no agreement on what the meant by engagement, a significant problem in its own right; nor was the evidence particularly compelling since it was based on a lack of identifiable and sound logic connecting the precursors of engagement to engagement itself and onwards to the outcomes claimed for it. Our argument in the form of a question in that chapter was: why not use some of the more rigorous work on psychological contracting, citizenship etc., that has been around for a number of years and build in some of the newer ideas of the engagement industry to improve their utility? In part, we were basing our arguments on a book produced by Paul Sparrow and Cary Cooper in 2003, so it is with great interest we read a new working paper by Paul and one of his colleagues, Shashi Balain to be found on the website of Lancaster University’s Centre for Performance-led HR.
In this paper they begin with a section on why engagement is becoming so important to practitioners, arguing that it has served three functions: as an internal marketing process to sell complex change to the workforce; as a means of linking employee motivations and committed behaviour to process improvement; and as a predictor of service and organizational performance, usually in the form of a variation on the well known ‘service-profit’ chain. Like our own chapter, they proceed to evaluate the consultancy attempts to develop ‘theories’ of engagement, claiming that the research designs used do not allow them to infer that their own versions of engagement cause performance improvements, that there is little construct validity in what they choose to define and measure as engagement, and that they all use different items to measure what they describe as engagement. Though some promising work in proving useful statistical relationships has been produced by some of the consulting firms, it lacks strong logical basis and argument as why their versions of engagement should be linked to individual and organizational outcomes, and is thus unlikely to be helpful to HR practitioner seeking to manage the process.
Balain and Sparrow suggest an extremely useful way forward to make the concept more useful. They argue that HR directors in specific companies need to reverse engineer the type of performance that an organization is trying to create, in much the same way as the book previously reviewed by Becker et al does. What is it that we are asking employees to engage with at an individual level and organizational level? In answering these questions they produce a model of antecedents of engagements (job characteristics, perceived organizational support, leadership, reward and recognitions, procedural fairness and trust), which leads to strong performance bonds (individual and organizational identification, internalisation of company values, psychological ownership, etc), leading to conditions of engagement (i.e. job engagement and organizational engagement) , which result in important individual and group level outcomes (e.g. motivation, discretionary effort, commitment, improved group and organizational morale, organizational citizenship, etc). One of the key points of this model is that it makes use of well-known and validated scales. Another is that it is necessarily more complicated than most of the overly-simplified consulting models.
A further, extremely important point they make is that there is no single organizational performance recipe. The potential contribution that employee engagement makes in different organizations is likely to differ, so why should engagement have the same performance impact across different service models? To reinforce this point, they identify four different service models from the marketing literature - personal v non personal service, encounter v relationships, collaborative v single service relationship and B2B and B2C interactions – all of which are likely to make different demands on what and who employees need to be engaged with . Their claim is that HR directors have a ‘fantastic opportunity’ to really get under the skin of engagement in their own organizations by developing more complex understandings and models of engagement that apply to their specific circumstances. Two key questions they need to address is: what are they asking their employees to engage with, and what beliefs, attitudes, intentions and behaviours do we require of them to engage. To make the construct more useful to practitioners, HRDs need to identify the performance belief – ‘a shared belief of a team that it has the required ability, resources, goal clarity and leadership attributes to achieve the desired performance outcomes’ (p 38). The performance belief is the cause, while being engaged to perform is the effect. Answering these questions allows HRDs to manage engagement more effectively, but this requires them to measure different things from the standard attitude or engagement survey, which Balain and Sparrow begin to describe. Here they need to do a little more work. Overall, however, the general arguments in the paper are excellent and take us a lot further in understanding engagement than anything else I’ve read so far. There is still a need to do some tight editing and crisping up of the arguments to make them more accessible to most practitioners, but this paper is certainly the best place to begin for serious work in this burgeoning field.

In visiting this excellent site you will find other papers of interest and also a survey on HR in tough times that Paul would like you to help him out with.

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