Dr. Arnold Bakker on Employee Engagement and Work (Part 1)

by David Zinger | Posted | Engagement

Dr. Arnold Bakker on Employee Engagement and Work (Part 1)

Welcome to a two-part interview with Arnold Bakker on employee engagement and work. I believe Dr. Bakker is one of the foremost researchers on work and engagement and has valuable insights to bring from academia to HR practitioners.

In this post, you will:

  • get to know Dr. Bakker,
  • find out what academics know about engagement that would help HR practitioners,
  • differentiate between employee engagement and work engagement, and
  • learn why we should focus more on daily engagement.
Kevin Groves

Dr. Arnold B. Bakker is a Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at Erasmus University, Rotterdam (The Netherlands) and Past President of EAWOP. He's also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg (South Africa) and an Adjunct Professor at Lingnan University (Hong Kong). You can learn more about Dr. Bakker and his research at www.arnoldbakker.com.

David: Hello Arnold. I've so much appreciated your work and I believe organizations and individuals would benefit from a better understanding of the work you've done and how you see engagement. What personally got you interested in work and engagement?

Arnold: I've been interested in the psychology of work since I was a high school student. I started my university career as a student in Econometrics, but soon found out that Econometrics teaches you how to analyze phenomena at the macro-level. I'm interested in how people function and create value and meaning for others and themselves. I studied Social and Organizational Psychology, but also Personality Psychology and Methods and Statistics. After my dissertation, I started to work as a postdoc researcher on a project regarding burnout. One year after my start, I woke up and realized that fortunately most people are not burned out in their work, but rather enjoy their work or are relatively oblivious about it. I then decided to study the opposite of burnout — which we call work engagement.

David: What engages you the most in your own work?

Arnold: I really like to analyze organizational processes and to build models to better understand how people function in organizations. I often get immersed in statistical analyses and writing academic papers. I'm very enthusiastic about studying positive proactive behaviors of employees (e.g., job crafting, strengths use). What I also enjoy doing is presenting our work to small or large groups, and applying scientific insights to practice.

David: What do academics and university researches know about employee engagement or work engagement that HR organizations and consultancies need to know better?

Arnold: One important insight is that work engagement is not a static personality-like variable, but rather it's a state that differs between situations and over time. This means that work engagement is malleable. Inspiring leaders, proactive employee behaviors, and managers who provide a resourceful work environment can all influence engagement. This all implies that we should move away from one-time assessments of work engagement, and rather see and investigate engagement as a phenomenon that changes.

David: Can you differentiate between employee engagement and work engagement? What's the benefit of focusing on work engagement?

Arnold: Work engagement is engagement about the content of the work. Engaged workers are full of energy and want to invest this energy in their work tasks. In addition, engaged workers are dedicated to their work, not necessarily to their organization (although engagement is often correlated with organizational commitment). Finally, engaged workers are immersed in their work activities, and are highly focused. This is the reason why they perform so well: they're able and willing to flourish.

Employee engagement is the label that is more often used in practice. Unfortunately, many consultants have started to use “employee engagement” as a kind of umbrella term, referring to (what I see as) outcomes of engagement, namely organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB), in-role performance, and organizational commitment.

I believe that OCB, in-role performance and commitment should not be equated with work engagement, because they're important phenomena in themselves. We can study these variables as outcomes of work engagement. It should also be noted that in the employee engagement tradition, engagement is often a more stable indicator of employee effort. In our own research and practical applications, we focus on work engagement as a fluctuating state that varies within individuals over time as a consequence of changing events at work, changing working conditions, and possible self or other initiated interventions.

David: Should we be focusing more on daily or weekly engagement as opposed to the annual or bi-annual survey of engagement?

Arnold: Yes, because work engagement is highly variable. Although we can find stable components of engagement (some people are generally more engaged in work than others), about 50% of the variance in engagement scores varies within individuals over time. This means that it's really more interesting to focus on short-term predictors of work engagement, from day to day, and from week to week. We're currently investigating work engagement as it varies from work activity to work activity.

Stay tuned for Part 2

In Part 2 of this interview we will learn about the Job Demands–Resources model of engagement, learn more about D. Arnold Bakker’s research, have him suggest two research papers for us to read, what he would focus on if he was suddenly the VP of employee engagement and where he sees work and engagement headed as we move towards 2020.

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