Talent management leaders are often interested in increasing employee engagement, and our journals are full of stories about its positive benefits. A recent study by Dr. Luke Fletcher, however, points out that it is important for us to dig deep into what exactly we are trying to impact when we aim to promote engagement.
What Does the Research Tell Us?
Researchers have noted that there are differences in how studies define engagement. On the one hand, a construct called “personal role engagement” describes the degree to which employees are intellectually stimulated by the work, the degree to which they feel part of themselves expressed in the work, and the degree to which they desire to interact with others who do similar work. People with personal role engagement see the work as part of who they are, and they are energized by their responsibilities and by their camaraderie with others in the field. This form of engagement is rooted in the specific interactions between employees and their particular tasks and interpersonal connections.
On the other hand, “work engagement” focuses on a state of mind characterized by energy, dedication, and absorption (or flow). This construct was developed as the antitheses to burnout and is more generalized—not necessarily attached to any particular part of the work. Personal role engagement describes a holistic psychological construct while work engagement focuses on broad attitude toward work.
In an effort to clarify which of these conceptualizations would be more useful in driving talent development efforts aimed at increasing engagement, Dr. Fletcher surveyed 304 full-time workers in the United Kingdom. The survey measured personal role engagement, work engagement, and work behaviors (among other variables) to look for relationships. Dr. Fletcher was able to show that personal role engagement has a stronger impact than work engagement on employees’ perceptions of their capabilities and adaptability. They see themselves as more skilled and better able to adjust to change—two important outcomes, especially in an era when new practices and tools are constantly emerging in most jobs.
In other words, passion counts. If employees feel deeply connected to their roles and invest more of themselves, they are more likely to be fully active on the job, resulting in better performance. Personal role engagement deepens an employee’s sense of fulfillment in the work. If you are trying to affect employee engagement, then, it may be beneficial to focus your energies on building a sense of personal role engagement.
What Can We Do?
Talent development professionals might consider strategies that:
- develop employees’ work-related role identity
- promote social relationships
- educate employees on the wider implications of their work (meaning).
In this way, talent development isn’t just about learning to do, but also about learning to be. Modern practices that promote social and experiential learning—and that help employees to develop deeper networks among their peers—will also serve to build role engagement. When training programs are offered, talent development professionals can include components that promote communication and interaction, especially among those with similar roles. Additionally, developing managers’ skills in creating inclusive department learning cultures also supports the growth of personal role engagement.
Want to Learn More?
The full study, “Training Perceptions, Engagement, and Performance: Comparing Work Engagement and Personal Role Engagement,” can be found in the January 2016 issue of Human Resource Development International, 19:1, 4-26. You can contact Dr. Luke Fletcher at Brighton Business School; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of articles highlighting research from the journals of the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD). In partnership with ATD, AHRD is committed to sharing useful research with the practitioner community.