Perspectives, Issues, Research and Practice
New Horizons in Management series
Edited by Simon L. Albrecht
Chapter 2: The Essence of Engagement: Lessons from the Field
William A. Kahn Introduction Engagement is an enormously appealing concept. We seem to intuitively understand what it means, and believe that it helps to explain something about how people are (or ought to be) at work. The problem, of course, is that many of us have different understandings of what engagement is. We all believe that it is a good thing to be engaged, particularly in contrast to being disengaged, which suggests absence. But we are just not exactly sure what engagement really looks like, except that it involves people working hard and caring about what they are doing. This seems like a good thing, for individuals, their organizations and its customers, and the quality of the work that gets done. Beyond that, there is much divergence in terms of what, exactly, engagement is. This divergence makes it difficult for us to agree on how to get more people engaged at work. I have been thinking about, researching, and helping people and organizations with engagement for almost thirty years. I developed the concept of engagement to explain what traditional studies of work motivation overlooked – namely, that employees offer up different degrees and dimensions of their selves according to some internal calculus that they consciously and unconsciously make (Kahn, 1990). Traditional motivation studies implicitly assumed that workers were either on or they were off; that is, based on external rewards and intrinsic factors, they were either motivated to work or not, and that this was a relatively steady state that they...
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