Employee Engagement Gap

Dr. Caren ScheepersEmployee Engagement

“Imagine a time when you were highly absorbed and engaged at work. What were the circumstances that caused this attentiveness and engagement? What did you feel at the time, what did you see, what did you hear and what did you smell? Make that experience vivid in your mind. Let your body actually experience the feeling now.” This is an exercise that I regularly start off with when I facilitate workshops on the topic “Employee Engagement”. As you read this article you are welcome to participate. You can even partake in the next exercise, by asking a colleague to work with you.

“Now choose a partner to work with and show your partner how you literally step into those circumstances and personal experience. What your partner then needs to do is to notice attentively what you look like, sound like, your body posture and your facial expression. The next step is to mimic it so that you can see clearly how your posture for instance changes when you are truly engaged or in the zone”. You have to take turns in this exercise, obviously. It has an added benefit of practice how to “tune in” to where other people are at by mimicking their non-verbal behaviour. Consequently, it allows us to become aware of how others feel and as a result build rapport with them. The question to discuss then is, “When last have you felt this invigorated at work?” and a follow up question, “How big is the gap between what you experience when you are fully engaged and your current work circumstances?”

Having observed numerous of these exercises, I realised that it is clear when employees are engaged and that it is actually quite contagious. Other observations were that the more upright body postures generally brought positive energy into the room and lasted long after the exercise. Neuropsychology explains this phenomenon by biochemical neurotransmitters in our brains that are activated by the imaginary incident, which also explains why we would feel fearful of circumstances that have not yet taken place (Scheepers & Jooste, 2012).

Tuning into our own awareness of being engaged or withdrawn as well as to others’ experiences, teaches us intuitively what engagement is about. Employee engagement is topical currently and mostly practitioners have been writing about this phenomenon. Lately, it luckily also grabbed the interest of academia that quite frankly wanted to find out whether employee engagement was only the latest “fad of the month”. Empirical studies followed that were published in top tier journals. For instance, the seminal work of Saks (2006) on the antecedents and consequences of employee engagement has academic rigour and provides scientific evidence for what we regularly experience intuitively in our daily work lives.

Nonetheless, mainly two exponents provided the theoretical foundation for employee engagement. Kahn (1990, p.694) defined it as ”employing themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally…in varying degrees.” In turn, Maslach (2001) who conducted more than 30 years of research, contrasted engagement with burnout, another phenomenon that we often come across in our highly stressful modern work environments. Her research revealed that burnout was the opposite of being engaged and the face validity of her study is high when we consider that vigour and dedication constitute engagement, whereas exhaustion, cynicism and withdrawal illustrate the opposite. Later research of Schaufeli et al (2002) confirmed Maslach’s notion of engagement and burnout being antipodes.

You might ask whether engagement is similar to commitment. Robinson et al (2004) pointed out in this regard, that engagement is more than commitment and more than an attitude. It is rather the degree to which an employee is attentive and absorbed in their work. Saks’ (2006) research provided evidence that commitment is actually a consequence of engagement. Furthermore, we can differentiate between job and organisational engagement. As a result, this article will focus on these two aspects.

a)         Job engagement 

Some people are highly engaged with their organisations, whereas others are actually engaged with their discipline or type of work and do not care where they conduct this job. These employees find meaning in the content of their work. Interestingly, job engagement increases when people have more contact with the beneficiaries of their work (Grant, 2012). Consequently, organisations must make a concerted effort to get back-office employees in contact with external or internal customers who are impacted by the quality of their work or lack thereof.

For the last 7 years, I have been lecturing on the GIBS MBA Module: Organisational Development and Transformation and I regularly asked these students whether they experience quality of work life. Sadly, over the years few of the MBA’s could declare that they were experiencing quality of work life. We often discussed Hackman and Oldham’s (1980) recommendations of bringing more of themselves into their work or being more engaged by: ensuring jobs are challenging, having variety, conducting significant tasks, allowing for personal discretion and making an important contribution. These students reported that getting feedback on their performance also increased meaningfulness of their jobs.

An interesting theory that could be associated with job engagement is the Social Exchange Theory or (SET) that implies that employees, who are provided with challenging and enriched jobs, feel obliged to reciprocate by responding with higher levels of engagement (Saks, 2006). On the other hand, when employees do not feel supported by colleagues or they do not get appropriate recognition and rewards, it leads to the burnout syndrome (Maslach et al, 2001). Kahn’s (1990) research revealed that our careers could constitute a series of leaps of engagement and falls of disengagement as well as that the person-role dynamics are complex.

b)         Organisational engagement 

Schaufeli and Bakker (2004) found that engaged employees have a greater attachment to their organisation. As a result, they have a lower intention to quit. Furthermore, they are involved in extra-role behaviour or being good organisational citizens and contribute to the greater organisation and not only to their own department or division.

I found it disappointing that in contrast, numerous executives on Senior Management Programmes found it difficult to articulate the social value that their organisations were creating and rather focused on financial results, whereas without financial results the organisation would anyway not be able to sustain itself. Nonetheless, through firstly meeting human needs by producing products or delivering services, organisations are able to declare financial returns and sustain the business. To the contrary, luckily organisations in South Africa like Nedbank, Woolworths, Nampak and FNB utilize corporate social responsibility projects as team building exercises and to build pride in their organisation’s contribution to society and subsequently organisational engagement.

Perceived procedural justice or fairness with regards to distribution of resources also influences organisational engagement (Rhoades et al, 2001). Conversely, a lack of fairness can exacerbate burnout (Maslach et al, 2001). Another dimension to consider is the Psychological Contract (Rousseau, 2004) with the resultant two-way relationship where employees receive economic and socio-emotional resources from the organisation and they respond in kind and repay the organisation by being psychologically present or engaged. We found in a specific study around this psychological contract that the human resources practice that had the most important relationship with the relational contract was training and development (Scheepers & Shuping, 2011). Consequently, investing in employees’ development would result in them perceiving that they are important to the organisation and they would reciprocate with loyalty to the organisation.

In closing, it is important to note that in the USA the engagement gap or lost of productivity cost due to employees being disengaged is estimated at $300 billion per annum (Kowalski, 2003). We do not have South African statistics to report however, the engagement gap remains an important phenomenon to investigate and I invite more researchers to conduct qualitative and quantitative studies to provide scientific evidence of the antecedents and consequences of employee engagement.

Follow Dave Ulrich on twitter: @dave_ulrich


  • Grant, A. M. (2012). Leading with meaning: Beneficiary contact, prosocial impact, and the performance effects of transformational leadership, Academy of Management Journal, 55 (2), 458-476.
  • Hackman, J. R. & Oldham, G. R. (1980). Work Redesign, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
  • Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work, Academy of Management Journal, 33 (4), 692-724.
  • Kowalski, B. (2003). The Engagement Gap, Training, 40 (4), 62, as cited in Saks, A. M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21 (7), 600-619.
  • Maslach,C., Schaufelli, W. B. & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job Burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.
  • Rhoades, L., Eisenberger, R. & Armeli, S. (2001). Affective commitment to the organisation: the contribution of perceived organisational support, Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 825-836.
  • Rousseau, D. M. (2004). Psychological contracts in the workplace: Understanding the ties that motivate, Academy of Management Executive, 18(1), 120-127.
  • Saks, A. M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21 (7), 600-619.
  • Schaufeli, W. B., Salanova, M., Gonzalez-Roma, V. & Bakker, A.B. (2002). The measurement of engagement and burnout: a two sample confirmatory factor analysis approach, Journal of Happiness Studies, 3 (3), 71-92.
  • Schaufeli, W. B & Baker, A. B. (2004). Job demands, job resources, and their relationship with burnout and engagement: a multi-sample study, Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 25, 293-315.
  • Scheepers, C. B. & Jooste, M. (2012). Neuroleadership informs internal business coaches on change, COMENSANews, Nov 30.
  • Scheepers, C. B. & Shuping, J. G. (2011). The effect of human resource practices on the psychological contract at an iron ore mining company in South Africa. South Africa Journal of Human Resources Management, 9(1), 1-19.