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Why I research… employee engagement and work motivation

Dr Ilke Inceoglu, the new Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law, discusses her passion for her research.

1. Why I am interested in the area

Don’t we have enough motivation models? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Herzberg’s hygiene factors and motivators are still very popular with managers because they are simple and intuitive models. Recent research on work motivation has developed more useful approaches, especially in the domain of employee engagement. Engagement is an aspect of work motivation. You work on something and time flies. You really enjoy what you are working on. And you look forward to coming back to it the next day. I think this is a fascinating area that helps us understand why, as Kahn (1990) put it, people invest themselves at work.

2. Why this area is important

Research is accumulating that shows that engagement is related to performance at individual and organisational level. Engaged employees are seen by their line managers as high performers. They provide better customer service; they are more likely to go the extra mile at work, to come up with new ideas and to stay with the organisation. Organisations with more engaged employees are objectively performing better in terms of profit and employee turnover. Engaged employees are more satisfied with their work and generally have higher levels of psychological well-being.

3. The problems that need to be solved in this area

The work motivation literature is vast and the term “motivation” has many different meanings. Similarly, employee engagement refers to a whole range of things, which has caused confusion among practitioners and academics. The reason is that employee engagement became popular with consultancies and HR professionals very quickly and the academic literature was trying to catch up while engagement surveys (many of which were re-labelled as 'job satisfaction surveys') spread in organisations.

The UK government launched an initiative that focused on employee engagement (which happened to fall into the recession) to help British businesses develop. MacLeod and Clarke concluded in their report for the government in 2009 that employee engagement cannot be defined properly but nevertheless seems to be a useful concept, as it is linked to many positive outcomes. I disagree with the conclusion that it cannot be defined.

A lot of the confusion in the employee engagement literature stems from the fact that three concepts (antecedents of engagement, the state of engagement and outcomes of engagement) are all lumped together under the term engagement. We disentangled these terms by defining engagement as cognitive-affective state (thinking and feeling) and proposing a model that explains how it is linked to these other concepts (Fleck & Inceoglu, 2010). Being absorbed and energised by one’s work are key features of work engagement which academics in the field (e.g. Bakker, Albrecht & Leitner, 2011) now agree on.

We placed engagement on a motivational continuum that also helps understand how it is linked to other concepts in the motivation literature (Inceoglu & Fleck, 2010). Simply put, we distinguish between things that motivate us (e.g. challenging goals), feeling motivated (engagement) and motivated behaviours (e.g. extra role behaviours, effort).

The work environment plays an important role in work engagement. One size doesn’t fit all, however: the extent to which specific job features make us feel engaged is related to what’s important to us – the fit between what we want and what we have at work. Perfect fit is not always desirable, as engaged employees are more likely to want more of certain job features (e.g. challenging goals; Warr & Inceoglu, 2012).

Engagement is also related to personality traits (Inceoglu & Warr, 2011) which explains why some employees tend to be more engaged than others no matter what job situation they are in.

Although some longitudinal and diary studies have been published that support the idea that engagement influences performance, we don’t have a definite answer yet in terms of causality. It is possible that the influence works both ways. As all academic articles end: more research to be done.

References

Bakker, A. B., Albrecht, S. L., & Leiter, M. P. (2011). Key questions regarding work engagement. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 20, 4–28.

Fleck, S., & Inceoglu, I. (2010). A comprehensive framework for understanding and predicting engagement. In S. Albrecht (Ed.), The Handbook of Employee Engagement: Models, Measures and Practice (pp. 31-42). Cheltenham: Edward-Elgar Publishing House.

Inceoglu, I., & Fleck, S. (2010). Engagement as a motivational construct. In S. Albrecht (Ed.) The handbook of employee engagement: Models, measures and practices (pp. 74–86). Cheltenham UK: Elgar. Inceoglu, I., & Warr, P. (2011). Personality and job engagement. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 10, 177–181.

Kahn, W. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33, 692–724.

Warr, P, & Inceoglu, I. (2012). Job engagement, job satisfaction, and contrasting associations with person-job fit. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17(2), 129-138.

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