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Understanding Engagement

The second installment in a three-part series on engagement as a distinct behavioural construct and the underlying psychological models. Read part one Untangling Engagement or part three Encouraging Engagement.


In our first article, we quoted organizational psychologist Alan Saks (2008) that engagement is about “how you do what you are supposed to be doing” and that researchers were narrowing the scope of this concept to how much an employee is really there in the performance of their role.

Engagement as Anti-Burnout

In contrast to the model of psychological presence (Kahn, 1990) we covered in part one of our series, we will now look at a second model of engagement.

Since the 1970s, psychologist Christine Maslach has been studying the phenomenon of job burnout. In a 2001 paper coauthored by colleagues Wilmar Schaufeli and Michael Leiter they reviewed the nearly four decades of research in the field. One of the most popular means of measuring burnout is the Maslach Burnout Index (MBI) which has the three key dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. In the past decade, researchers have come to propose engagement as the “positive antithesis” of burnout, characterized by the opposing dimensions of energy, involvement and efficacy.

Focusing increasingly on engagement Schaufeli and collaborators Arnold Bakker and Marisa Salanova (2004) developed the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES) – a survey which has been iteratively narrowed to just nine questions of significance that measure engagement, three each in the revised dimensions of vigor, dedication, and absorption. Vigor and dedication correspond to the MBI dimensions energy and involvement, respectively.

In this model, effectiveness has been replaced by the new dimension “absorption”. This roughly corresponds to Kahn’s dimension, “focus”, and refers to the sense of being so wholly present in the performance of the role that one loses track of time. Colloquially, this is often referred to in the expression “time flies when you’re having fun”. This “flow” state has been most thoroughly studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in athletes, artists and musicians but is increasingly being employed in media studies, gaming, and –significantly– job design.

Maslach identified six areas of the work-life which lead to burnout or engagement. They are workload, control in the sense of having autonomy, rewards and recognition, community and social support, perceived fairness, and values” (Maslach 2001).


The psychological presence model and the burnout models are very similar in their description of engagement and the conditions which are most directly involved in allowing for it.

Antecedents Safety
Perceived fairness
Community and social support
Rewards and recognition
Dimensions Attention
Dedication (involvement)
Vigor (energy)

Looking across the columns we can see a great deal of overlap and agreement between the whole set of dimensions of the compared models, if not perfect agreement of where to draw the lines between them to assign a term. For instance, “meaningfulness” in the Presence model could quite easily characterize aspects of “autonomy” (control), “rewards/recognition”, and “values” in the Burnout model.

What appears to be missing from the psychological presence model but is present in both the folklore and the engagement-burnout model is the idea of energized performance. However, if we go back to Kahn’s original work, he describes “active, full role performances” as characterizing engagement. “People who are personally engaged keep their selves within a role, without sacrificing one for the other”, they “drive personal energies into role behaviors (self-employment) and [display] the self within the role (self-expression)” (p.700). This would seem to be what Kahn is describing as “integration” in his 1992 paper:

Integration is “a matter of experiencing a sense of wholeness in a situation: people feel as if important personal components are brought into the situation instead of split off”, and they may “spontaneously [call] upon any and all dimensions of themselves in saying and doing what seems appropriate to situations. They may switch from being creative, thoughtful, intense, funny, and compliant, juggling and integrating the different aspects of themselves their situations call forth” (p.326)

In summary, then the signature features of the two contrasted models seem to be:

  • presence (as connection or attention)/involvement,
  • focus/absorption, and
  • integration (active performance)/energy.

In our third installment, Encouraging Engagement, we look at some recent engagement research that helps us better understand how to support engagement in the workplace. Subscribe to our RSS or monthly newsletter so you don’t miss it.


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. (2008). The Meaning and Bleeding of Employee Engagement: How Muddy Is the Water? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1(1), 40–43.

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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