Employee Engagement

In 1990, psychologist William Kahn published Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement. In this scientific paper, Kahn presented his theory of employee engagement, which he defined as “the harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles”. He suggested that people need to feel safe bringing their full self to work without risk of negative consequences, and that an employee needs to consider their work meaningful enough to warrant engaging their full self.

Helping Put a Man on the Moon

One evening in 1960, as President Kennedy was taking a tour around NASA headquarters, he met a solitary caretaker, mopping the floor. “Why are you working so late?” asked Mr Kennedy. The answer: “Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Every NASA employee was fully engaged in the organisation’s objective. Most of the credit for the cultivation of employee engagement is attributed to President Kennedy, who honed his mission statement from a rather vague “advancing science by exploring the solar system” to a very concrete “put a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth”.

In a similar way, WWII factory workers went to work each day not to fill thousands of shells with TNT or to produce thousands of bolts for the undercarriages of aircraft, but to help win the war. 

Putting a man on the moon or winning a world war may not be easily executed, but the goals are easy to visualise. The more easily visualised, the more attainable they feel. With the perception of attainability comes a greater sense of commitment.

Working Without a Stapler

Known as “the father of Humanistic Psychology”, Frederick Herzberg was another influential psychologist who studied employees’ attitudes to their work. Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory of Motivation (1959) suggested that human beings have “lower-level” and “higher-level” needs. He believed that for employee engagement, both levels of need must be met.

Lower-level needs (labelled “the hygiene factor” by Herzberg) are to do with the physical and social environment – for example, clean air, efficient lighting, comfortable furniture, spatial comfort, agreeable temperature, toilet facilities, camaraderie, good hydration, absence of stress, and access to appropriate tools. The hygiene factor could be called “wellbeing”. If lower-level needs are not met, an employee will become disengaged.

High-level needs (or “the motivation factor”) are directly related to the job itself – for example, responsibility, recognition, corporate growth, career advancement, and achievement. When higher-level needs are met, an employee becomes more engaged.

I was working in a small factory that produced gardening equipment. I enjoyed the repetitive tasks and found my job fairly satisfying. One of my tasks was to package up bundles of garden sticks – you know, those splints that hold plants upright – and secure the wrapper with staples. Anyway, it often happened that the stapler didn’t work properly, and there didn’t seem to be an alternative stapler. I asked everyone in the factory, but no-one was interested. Not only did I feel a lack of team spirit and a sense of exclusion, but, more significantly, I felt that my work was worthless. Even if nobody cared about me, personally, you’d think that the fact I couldn’t carry out my work would matter. It didn’t seem to. I lost all motivation and left the job soon afterwards.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only disengaged employee at this workplace.

Hierarchy of Needs

Frederick Herzberg’s theory shares its fundamental premise with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, outlined in Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, published in 1943.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs begins with physiological needs – water, food, warmth, and rest – as the most basic and necessary for survival. The second level of need is safety, which includes health and wellbeing, personal safety, and financial security. On the next level, we have the need for social belonging. Kinship, friendship, and intimacy are essential for psychological equilibrium.

These first three levels of need are basic. The first two are shared by all other mammals (in differing ways), and the third is shared by mammals that depend on social interaction and cooperation for survival – for example, elephants, giraffes, chimpanzees, and wolves.

The fourth stratum is esteem. Independence, achievement, recognition, and self-esteem may not be essential for survival, but they’re universally desired. And at the peak of the Hierarchy of Needs is self-actualisation – the concept of personal fulfilment and the realisation of potential.

These two highest levels of need are uniquely human.

What’s Going On?

In the 1940s, every factory worker understood exactly why they were doing what they were doing. They were helping to win the war. And in the 1960s, every NASA employee knew exactly what they were working for. They were helping to put a man on the moon.

Understanding your organisation’s objectives, and how you and your role fit into the whole, inspire confidence and engagement.

I was working part time as a cleaner in a residential home. I was given an itinerary of tasks, which included emptying bins, vacuuming rooms and corridors and stairways, cleaning bathrooms … all the things you’d expect a cleaner to do. I was curious about the overall cleaning regime. My timetable dictated that I carry out certain tasks on certain days, and I noted that other cleaners were doing some of these tasks on other days, and sometimes a few things that I didn’t do at all. So I asked some questions, like “Are the main stairs done every day?”, or “Who does the laundry room on a Friday?” or “Is the medical cupboard cleaned just once a week?” Things like that. Well, they told me to worry about my own jobs – just concentrate on what I had to do. They said it would be easier. I disagreed. I said I’d like to understand how my work fitted into the whole picture. Nobody ever explained, and I ended up piecing together snippets of information and gradually filling in my secret timetable. I skived quite a bit, and after a few months, I left.

In this workplace, there was no accommodation for individual personalities and learning styles, and when I attempted to engage with my role, my colleagues were unreceptive.

Metrics to Measure Employee Engagement

How can business owners and managers gauge the workforce’s level of engagement?


Self-reporting is a common practice in companies. Regular wellbeing questionnaires and personal development interviews with managers provide a snapshot of employee morale, satisfaction, and engagement. The data can be used to address individual issues and collated for statistical analysis. 


Absenteeism is a major signaller of a workforce’s degree of engagement. A high level of absenteeism is both an indicator and a cause of low morale and disengagement. Frequent stress, depression, tiredness, or dread of going to work is often a sign of disengagement, and this has a detrimental effect on other staff members, who are then overworked and unsettled in an incomplete team, and they’re working in an environment that is so obviously objectional to some of their colleagues.

Staff Turnover

Staff turnover, too, is both an indicator and a cause of disengagement. When staff members leave, and new recruits join the team, there’s a high probability that these new members of staff will be influenced by the existing low level of moral. The third level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – the need for social acceptance and a sense of belonging – will prevent new members of staff from rebelling against an established workplace mindset.

Staff Engagement Impacts the Bottom Line

Staff turnover and absenteeism impact heavily on productivity and customer engagement. Viewed in comparison with previous accounting periods, the bottom line in a company’s accounts is a good indicator of employee engagement.

I was doing freelance work for Pellpax, an online retailer of firearms and airguns, and I was one of a small group of staff who attended the British Shooting Show at the NEC, Birmingham. We were all so proud to be representing our company. When we met suppliers and customers, it was often for the first time, and their impression of the company depended on us. The MD was with us – not that you’d have been able to pick him out. We were all taking responsibility and we were all invested in the success and reputation of the business. It was one of the best weekends of my life, when I was 100% engaged. Actually, our normal working lives weren’t far off that level of engagement.

This is a perfect example of “the harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles”.

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