Managers and organizations need to rethink the way they view employee engagement if they want to get the most from their staff, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Guelph professor.

The literature review by management professor Jamie Gruman and University of Toronto professor Alan Saks examined 10 years’ worth of employee engagement theories and found most lacking. The review was published in Human Resource Development Quarterly.

The researchers suggest that the current definition of employee engagement leads to confusion for managers and human resources professionals, and can hamper efforts to ensure employees are fulfilled and motivated in their work.

In 1990, William Kahn, a Boston University professor, defined engaged employees as psychologically present, meaning they are attentive, connected, integrated and focused on their performance and role.

“There are different levels of engagement and different drivers, but they all involve bringing the full self into a role,” said Gruman.

“In reviewing the literature we find that in many cases the definition has been changed and modified, and these studies also tend to ignore the drivers. They also focus on only one kind of engagement, but there are multiple forms. This means measurement of employee engagement is often inadequate.”

He said different drivers work for various employees and that increasing compensation will not always succeed.

“Engagement can be considered a form of happiness, and money is so weakly associated with happiness I would suggest that companies and organizations which try to ‘buy happiness’ are barking up the wrong tree.”

Three key motivating drivers — psychological conditions, psychological safety and availability — vary in extent for each individual and organization.

Psychological conditions come from meaningful work, including belief in an organization’s goals and fulfilling work.

“Psychological safety is how secure people feel expressing themselves at work, how open their bosses are to their initiative or suggestions. And availability is when you have the personal resources at hand necessary to be engaged,” Gruman said.

Personal resources include hope, optimism, confidence and resilience.

“It helps if you hire people with these attributes, but you can build those resources fairly quickly. For example, start with easy tasks, generally increase the difficulty and provide positive reinforcement as employees complete them.”

The review is entitled “What Do We Really Know About Employee Engagement?”