What organizational psychology teaches us about employee engagement

Commitment issues: Organizational psychology and the benefits of managing openly

Employee engagement is critical in high-performing organizations. But do we really understand what makes people feel committed to their work?

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Discussions about open values in the workplace often focus on leaders creating high-level strategies and visions for their teams and organizations. But a unique set of leaders, managers, bears additional responsibilities, such as generating business performance, creating work environments, representing the larger organization to the associate, and coordinating day-to-day operations—and they do this through their relationships with employees. Managerial relationships are integral to the employee experience, because they have a direct impact on retention, meaningful work, social support, and more. So managers need to be especially aware of the values and principles that guide their practice. To highlight this special kind of leader, the Open Organization community is creating a special article series, "Managing with Open Values."

In the next few articles, we'll investigate different perspectives on what it means to "manage according to open values." We'll explore the importance of doing it and ask experts for their practical ideas on actually doing it..

But first, we'll take a look at why you'd want to let open principles guide your management practices in the first place. For that, we begin with the end in mind: Employee engagement.

What is employee engagement?

A manager's decision to work openly can impact a critical component of organizational life: employees' overall investment in and satisfaction with their work. I interviewed organizational psychology professional Tracy Giuliani to get a better sense of how and why this is the case.

Listen to my interview with Tracy Giuliani

Employee engagement is an oft-used term that carries several meanings depending on the context in which it's used. Tracy laughed when I asked "What is associate engagement?"—because "engagement" is such an awkward term. In addition, employee engagement means different things to different organizations; there's no agreement on one definition of "employee engagement," so organizations are developing it differently.

For our purposes here, the short-'n'-sweet of it is this: engagement is essentially a qualitative and quantitative understanding of the level of commitment between an employee and the organization or team with which they work. In fact, Tracy defines engagement as

"The extent to which associates feel PASSIONATE about their work, are INVESTED in an organization's purpose and values, and demonstrate creative effort in going "ABOVE AND BEYOND."

Many factors influence the commitment an associate might have to the organization and its goals, so "engagement" is really describing a set or a system of things that impact an employee. (At Red Hat, we call employees "associates" to honor the important creative role they play in the organization's overall performance. I'll use the terms interchangeably.) In addition, research on identity and inclusion suggests that individuals experience these impacts differently—so the "sets of things" can differ even within a team or organization.

In cases where engagement is high, associates:

  • Are excited and passionate
  • Use their discretionary attention to be more present and participate more, thereby increasing their creativity and performance
  • Experience more "creative flow" with their work, due to the intersection of intrinsic motivation and interest
  • Find their work meaningful and purposeful
  • Have the support of both manager and team
  • Work in a positive environment with support and psychological safety
  • Experience two-way, mutual trust—not only do they trust in leadership and their vision, mission, and purpose, but they are trusted by their managers and leaders.
  • Feel they have opportunities to grow
  • Experience increased resilience and holistic well-being (in work and in life)

(See Josh Bersin's work on employee engagement. )

But to truly understand engagement, we must also look at the inter-employee meaning of these indicators. While having a high degree of all these factors is great (many of us want these things in our work lives), they're not a direct measure of engagement. They contribute to what could be engagement. (Remember Tracy laughing at my question, "What is associate engagement?" Now we know why! It's complicated!)

Note that the items on this list are typical, day-to-day experiences—frequent and consistent ways employees experience their work and work environments. They aren't one-off techniques, like an annual engagement event or survey. They're part of the everyday relationships employees have with others (like managers) and their work, which means they're things organizational leaders (like managers) need to work on every day.

The manager's role in creating engagement

Managers are crucial to employee engagement because they provide the (un)supportive context in which associates work. In fact, they account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores.

During our interview, when Tracy described what "managing with open values" means to her, she explained several open leadership traits and styles that most impact the employees and their levels of passion, commitment, and investment to performance. Open values are relevant to any organizational role—but they're critical to managers seeking ways to develop trusted relationships with associates. According to Tracy, trust is the primary requirement for a positive work context for employees.

Open values are relevant to any organizational role—but they're critical to managers seeking ways to develop trusted relationships with associates.

Trust shows employees that a manager has faith in them, allows managers to share information more readily with their employees, aids coaching relationships, and helps create mutually beneficial relationships. Trust allows us to be vulnerable and transparent, and to ask for help when we need it. It creates the foundation of confidence between people. From an innovation perspective, trust forms the basis for psychological safety, or the ability to feel safe being oneself, taking creative risks, and not being penalized for failure.

Data on attrition and employee engagement support the unique relationships that managers have to employees. People leave their jobs because of the impact managers have on them. For instance, when an employee takes a new role, they often cite "lack of growth opportunities" as a reason to leave. This may never have been necessary, however, because a conversation with their manager, based on mutual trust, may have alleviated that issue. At the very least, the manager could have helped the employee find new a new role with better opportunities within the organization, rather than the employee feeling they needed to leave altogether. As I highlighted earlier, the manager is where the boundary between employee and company intersects; managers represent the organization to their employees and teams. A trusted manager can help employees feel they are part of a trusted organization.

Employee engagement exists at the intersection of people, processes, tools, and culture—although it is really focused on people and their relationship to the other things. When employees feel like they're a priority over processes, they relate to their work and work environments in ways that benefit the company (such as through increased performance, commitment and innovation). Creating high levels of employee engagement requires consistent effort and focus from leaders, because engagement relies on the daily relationships that employees have with leaders, managers, and each other.

About the author

Image of Heidi
Heidi Hess von Ludewig - Heidi Hess von Ludewig researches networked workplace creativity from the systems perspective, which means that she examines the relationships of multiple elements within the workplace that influence how individuals and groups perform innovative and creative work. She spent over fifteen years in the software industry performing a variety of roles, from developer to analyst, for Fortune 500 companies before receiving her PhD from North Carolina State University in 2014. Her research informs the...

About the author

Tracy Giuliani - Tracy Giuliani has dabbled in many different spaces in a quest to better understand how different experiences and insights are connected in the workplace (employees, customers, products, organization).  Typically you will find this Industrial/ Organizational (I/O) Psychology enthusiast transforming talent intelligence, data, and consulting with an Agile mindset.  Currently she is expanding her reach to influence the connection of market, customer, and product insights and hopes to one day...