Alan M. Saks On Bringing Employee Engagement Research Into Reality

by David Zinger | Posted | Engagement

Alan M. Saks On Bringing Employee Engagement Research Into Reality

If you’re not following Alan Saks and his work on employee engagement, you need to. I was tremendously impressed with his latest article on employee engagement research and practice in the academic journal Organizational Dynamics, “Translating Employee Engagement Research into Practice.” I believe all practitioners can benefit by having a greater understanding of what academics and researchers such as Dr. Saks offer in the fields of work and engagement.

Alan Saks is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management in the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto. He conducts research on organizational entry and the school-to-work transition such as job search, recruitment and the socialization and on-boarding of new hires. He has also studied and written about the transfer of training, employee engagement and workplace spirituality.

What personally engages you the most in your work?

I find it easy to be engaged in the classroom when given the task of trying to engage students in learning. Engagement is in large part influenced by the nature of a task. Teaching provides one with a great deal of task variety, task significance and autonomy, all of which contribute to my engagement. Working on a new research project and paper is also very engaging.

What most intrigues you about work, engagement and organizations?

As I indicated in my paper, it is surprising that engagement remains a problem for so many organizations even though we have learned a great deal about it and how to better engage employees. Engagement is a two-way process and organizations need to understand that if they want to have engaged employees, they need to provide employees with the resources they need to be engaged. We now know enough about employee engagement that organizations should have more engaged employees.

Let’s talk about your wonderful article in Organizational Dynamics, “Translating Employee Engagement Research into Practice.” What prompted you to write this article?

I wanted to help organizations make sense out of all the research that has been published in the last ten years given that there is so much ambiguity regarding the meaning and measurement of employee engagement as well as how best to improve it. It is not easy to understand the research findings or to put them into practice. So, I wanted to provide a model and guidelines of how to do this and to overcome the barriers that make it difficult to translate engagement research into practice.

You examined the five barriers to translating research into practice. First, tell us about the “definition barrier?”

There are many definitions of engagement and many of them overlap with other variables such as organizational commitment. Some definitions also include variables that are predictors of engagement (challenging work) and outcomes of engagement (intent to remain). When defining engagement, it is important to avoid confusing it with other variables including predictors and consequences of engagement. If the definition is not accurate, then the measurement of engagement will also be a problem as well as knowing how to improve it.

What do you mean by the “referent barrier?”

Engagement is specific to a specific role and one’s performance in that role. For example, an employee might be engaged in their job but not in their role as a member of their organization or their team. It is therefore important to be clear about what it is or what role you want employees to be engaged in. Is ita particular task or assignment, their job, team or the organization? The extent to which an employee will be engaged in various roles will vary, so it is important to know what role is most in need of improvement and how to improve it.

Tell us more about the third barrier, called the “measurement barrier?”

Like the definition of engagement, there are many different measures of engagement and they do not all measure the same thing. As with definition, many measures of engagement include items that are similar to job satisfaction and organizational commitment and also include drivers of engagement such as job challenge and consequences of engagement such as intent to remain. As a result of this, many measures of engagement are not valid and will fail to provide an accurate assessment of employee engagement. In my paper, I provide a table that lists some of the measures of engagement that have been developed in the academic literature.

Can you speak a little to the fourth barrier, the “driver barrier?”

Very often, we see long lists of the drivers of employee engagement as if there are certain things that every organization should do to improve engagement. While research has identified some key factors that drive engagement such as performance feedback and social support, the only way to know for sure what needs to be improved to drive engagement in an organization is to measure various drivers and determine which ones predict engagement and require more attention.

Furthermore, the things that each employee requires to help them become more engaged will vary. One employee might need more challenging work while another might need more support, coaching or performance feedback. Therefore, it is important to also focus on the individual and individual needs to improve engagement.

Finally, what’s the “strategy barrier?”

Improving employee engagement requires a strategy that integrates and connects numerous activities and programs. It is not enough to simply tweak a few drivers. There needs to be a strategy for improving employee engagement that includes many actions and stakeholders. This strategy should include practices that focus on both the organization and the individual. An effective engagement strategy requires an integrated and system-wide approach that involves practices and programs aimed at the organization and the individual.

If you were the head of employee engagement for an organization, what two or three things would you most focus on to improve engagement?

Leadership is extremely important for engagement, and research has demonstrated that certain types of leadership and leader actions are critical for engagement. Therefore, leaders need to be educated about engagement, their role in creating an engaged workforce and what they can do to better engage their employees. HR also has a key role to play and they need to be involved in the development of an engagement strategy. HR should determine how various activities (e.g., new employee orientation, performance management, training and development) can be used to drive engagement. Thus, there needs to be an engagement strategy that is then translated into various HR programs and activities.

Where do you believe engagement is headed over the next five years?

Some people believe that engagement has run its course and it is just a matter of time before the next big thing comes along. However, I don’t think this is the case. The research has clearly demonstrated that engagement has important implications for organizations and employees, as well as predicting employee attitudes, behaviors and well-being. However, engagement must be strategic and integrated into all areas of an organization and the focus of HR practices and programs. Thus, in the next five years, organizations have to develop an organization-wide engagement strategy and HR practices that will support the strategy.

Thank you for stopping by and speaking with us, Alan. If people want to learn more about your work, what do you recommend, and how best can they get in touch with you?

They should read my article, “Translating Employee Engagement Research into Practice” in Organizational Dynamics (2017), 46, 76-86 and contact me at saks@utsc.utoronto.ca.

Driving Employee Engagement through Employee Experience

Explore the relationship between employee experience and engagement.


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Driving Employee Engagement through Employee Experience

Explore the relationship between employee experience and engagement.


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