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Encouraging Engagement

The final article in a three-part series on engagement as a distinct behavioural construct and the underlying psychological models. Read part one Untangling Engagement and part two Understanding Engagement.


In our previous two installments we reviewed and compared the psychological presence and burnout models for engagement. In this article, we look at a recent experiment into engagement that recalls the original transactional nature of engagement as suggested by William Kahn (1990) as part of his approach for assembling the psychological presence model. This new experiment studies an externally-oriented transaction, different from Kahn’s internal and personal negotiation. We then explore some of the ways to drive employee engagement in the workplace by communicating in ways that leverage the relationships described in the engagement models.

In his 2006 study, Alan Saks applied Social Exchange Theory (SET) to the understanding of engagement. The basic premise of this is, in exchange for specific types of job conditions and organizational conditions people offer greater levels of job and organizational engagement. He tested several of the areas of work-life identified by Maslach et al for their impact on engagement. In doing so, he very specifically focused on connecting areas of formal research literatures to those work-life conditions. For example, he grounded his testing of the “support” condition in the work of Rhoades and Eisenberger (2002) on Perceived Organizational Support (POS) and Perceived Supervisor Support (PSS), and used their survey instrument to evaluate this component. One of the most important outcomes of his work was the finding that job and organizational engagement are related but distinct structures and have different precondition and outcome profiles.

Saks concluded the results suggest SET can be used to explain at least some elements of engagement; people respond in a transactional manner to the conditions of appropriate work conditions with increased job engagement and, likewise for organizational conditions, with organizational engagement.

Interestingly, Kahn also envisioned a transactional approach underlying his model. However, the psychological presence approach suggested that this contract was between the individual and his/her self and how much that person was willing to risk to experience self-expression and self-employment of the preferred self (Kahn, 1990, p. 694). This is a compelling area for future research and one that could be connected with greater senses of happiness and fulfillment.

Communicating for Engagement

With an understanding of these current psychological models of engagement and their preconditions we have a much clearer ability to understand why communications is so critical to engaging workforces. Using the idea of an ongoing negotiation for the full investment by an employee of their preferred self in their work role, we can identify some key priorities for our work as communicators (this also applies if we use Saks’ suggested SET model between employee and employer, and Maslach’s six work-life conditions). We need to ensure employees always have answers they believe as they relate to:

  • the meaningfulness of their work. This means clarifying the employee value proposition and showing the link with performance, connecting employees to the strategy of the company and the functioning of the team, and providing feedback against all three. It also involves sharing the real lived values of the organization in the work and through corporate social responsibility.
  • the safety of their situation. Here we are focusing on employee trust and confidence in their knowledge of the environment they must act in. For this we must communicate the expectations and support of leadership so that employees can be sure their actions are in alignment with the company; proactively communicate change and new role expectations so individuals are not surprised by new work conditions; equip supervisors to provide team and role-specific feedback so that employees have the opportunity to fine tune their performance and feel their self-in-role; and support an organizational culture that approves of and applauds engaged behaviour.
  • the organizational support for their availability to perform their role. This most specifically relates to engaging in dialogue about the physical, cognitive, and emotional demands of the job and requires clear communication of the skills required; the training opportunities to improve those skills; ways to share job knowledge within and between teams; assisting effective project and team communication; and supporting employee wellness.

Strategic communications begins with the recruitment and orientation process, and continues through all touchpoints with the employee during their career. It is present not only in the messages but in the channels themselves and in the communication skills of line managers. Maslach et al stressed that feedback and autonomy are critical elements of engagement; we would extend this to communications in that employees need to both hear to understand their purpose in the organization as well as feel they can impact their situation with their words and actions.

The Personal Act of Engagement

One thing we emphasize in our work on engagement is that it isn’t leaders, managers, communicators or consultants that create engagement; our roles are to create the conditions that best enable people to be engaged. Everywhere we find engagement, we can be certain that it is that individual who has brought themselves to the employee role, at increased risk to themselves. It is an act of trust that we will support them exposing their most valued identity in pursuit of our shared objectives. Kahn (1992) described engagement as a gift that we should treat with genuine appreciation, never taking it for granted. We must have high standards of work and accountability to role responsibilities, absolutely, but that extra level of performance excellence that comes with engagement is a wonderful thing every time it happens.

Please send us your comments and join us in the dialogue – we’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences communicating with employees for improved engagement. We hope you enjoyed this series and will subscribe to our RSS to receive notice about future posts.


Kahn William A. (1990). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. The Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), pp. 692-724

Kahn William A. (1992). To Be Fully There: Psychological Presence at Work. Human Relations, 45 (4), pp. 321-349.

Maslach Christina , Wilmar B Schaufeli, Michael P Leiter (2001). Job Burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, pp. 397-422.

Saks Alan M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21(7), pp. 600 – 619.

Schaufeli, Wilmar. B., Arnold B. Bakker, & Marisa Salanova (2006). The measurement of work engagement with a short questionnaire: A cross-national study. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 66 (4), pp. 701–716.

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