Book review: Enhancing Employee Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach

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Title: Enhancing Employee Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach
Author: J. Lee Whittington, Simone Meskelis, Enoch Asare & Sri Beldona
ISBN: 978-3-319-54731-2
Reviewer: Ken Bascom, Sr. OD Consultant, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Reviewer's rating: 3 out of 5

Enhancing Employee Engagement front cover

Having worked for many years directly or indirectly in the field of employee engagement, I was very interested to have the opportunity to review this book. I find it interesting that the experience was at once so rewarding and so frustrating.

A slender volume (137 pages including two appendices on research methodologies), the book provides a satisfying number of valuable and actionable ideas – embedded in a repetitive and exasperating narrative, with two seriously problematic elements.

Book Overview

We start with a charming story outlining why focusing on “what works” is an important principle for J. Lee Whittington, the lead author. The book then veers into a considerably more academic tone, following a logical and straight-forward structure. Chapter 1 discusses definitions of employee engagement and why it matters, followed in Chapter 2 with the sources and outline of the engagement model that the subsequent chapters then discuss. 

This model of engagement is thoughtful and nuanced, based on a definition of engagement as “an alignment of a person’s cognitive, emotional and physical resources in a focused effort to achieve the goals of the organization”.

 The factors that directly impact on this state are:

  • Meaningfulness,
  • the practices and procedures in the HR Value Chain (see below for a definition), and
  • the Performance Management System.

Of these three, Meaningfulness is significantly the most important factor (as the book says, “The road to enhanced employee engagement goes through meaningfulness”).

The model further identifies three dimensions to Meaningfulness and the practices that impact them: Meaning at Work, impacted by transformational leadership; Meaning in Work, impacted by job design; and Bringing Meaning to Work, impacted by “integrated faith”.

The following six chapters are devoted to exploring each of the elements of the model in turn, discussing the literature and thinking behind it, and outlining the research they conducted to test its impact.

The final two chapters discuss the authors’ findings about the similarities and differences in the results of their research in the US and Brazil, and recommendations for organizations and managers looking to improve employee engagement.

Two appendices at the end describe their research and analysis methodologies. While I do not have the technical expertise to critique the research and analysis methodologies, they seem to have face validity, and I will accept them as reasonable unless wiser heads point out significant flaws.

Gushing

As mentioned, I have something of a love/hate relationship with this book, but for the moment let’s focus on the love.

While the book’s definition of engagement is simply a variation of the “head, heart and hands” framework used by many practitioners, the value this book adds is the idea this is largely a result of meaningfulness. From a practical point of view, this provides a useful starting point for discussions with employees.

Talking in terms of working with employees to add meaning to their work is a very different conversation than talking to them about investing everything they have in the success of the organization. (Talking in terms of increasing “discretionary effort”, as some practitioners do, seems particularly counter-productive.) Having this confirmed through the authors’ research adds a level of confidence to the approach.

Perhaps even more significantly, the book provides empirical support to the importance of transformational leadership, and jobs designed to provide autonomy and allow employees to bring a variety of skills and passion to the work. These factors are crucial enablers that create the conditions for meaningfulness.

Of the more organization-level elements contributing to engagement, the HR Value Chain – the set of linked HR management practices spanning from HR needs analysis through recruiting to employee separation – and the performance management system both are found to contribute directly to engagement.

One of the key findings here is that individual managers have the ability to undermine the value of well-designed systems, but not to overcome poor ones.

The overall message, then, is that senior / executive leaders and individual managers all have key roles to play, directly and indirectly, in enhancing employee engagement, but the greatest weight falls on the individual manager.

One of the most significant contributions the organization can make is to aid managers in understanding their role, and building the skills and capabilities that will enable them to fill it.

The book contains some specific suggestions for each link in that chain.

Venting

Looking at the other side of my relationship with the book, there are some things about format, content and writing that I found irritating, confusing or both.

The book is written as if all the chapters were stand-alone papers – even to the extent of having copyright information posted at the bottom of the first page of each chapter. The impact of this approach is that almost every chapter includes portions repeated in the previous one.

This paragraph, for instance, is repeated four times, word-for-word:

According to Baron and Kenny (1986), mediation occurs if the strength of the relationship between [factor under discussion] and the engagement is reduced when meaningfulness is included in the model. More specifically, there is mediation when ß4 (Model 3) is less than ß1 (Model 1). There is full mediation when the strength of the relationship is completely reduced to zero in the presence of the mediator variable (ß4 = 0; Baron & Kenny, 1986; Hayes, 2013).

Not only is this repeated, so is the half-page diagram illustrating it!

The text is riddled with similar pointless repetition, making it frustrating to read at a sitting or two (as its slim stature would have otherwise encouraged).

Perhaps more significant are two aspects of the model that seem somewhat problematic. The first of these is the division of performance management from the rest of the “HR Value Chain” [HRVC]. Stage 3 of the HRVC is “Continuous Development and Reinforcement”, including compensation, employee development and career management.

I am unclear why performance management isn’t included in this stage, which otherwise includes the primary processes managing the employee relationship between entry and separation.

There seems to be an assumption on the part of the authors that it is self-evidentially distinct, but it does not seem so to me.

However, this can be dismissed as a bit of a quibble. The other issue is much less so. The aspect of Meaningfulness that I have glossed over thus far is Bringing Meaning to Work. The authors’ model

“…examines the impact of an integrated faith on the experience of meaningfulness at work. This emphasis on faith integration is a distinctively Christian approach to spirituality that is based on the biblical perspective that, although certain things are designated as sacred, everything in life is related to God.”[i]

This is highly problematic in several ways.

Focusing on a “distinctively Christian” construct raises questions of inclusiveness, both with respect to other faiths and in an increasingly secular society. Particularly in a book that specifically purports to present inter-culturally relevant findings, this places the reader in the uncomfortable spot of trying to understand how to apply this information outside of a very specific milieu.

In addition, it also raises the question of what an organization is to do with the information. How is the reader intended to leverage this?

Making hiring decisions based on whether the candidate possesses an “integrated faith”, or proselytizing among employees for an appropriately Christian faith do not seem plausible approaches. Indeed, even inquiring into an individual’s religious beliefs can be seen as unlawfully intrusive.

This aspect of the model seems to reflect the (no doubt deeply held) faith and convictions of the authors rather than an attempt to formulate a useful and productive discussion about engagement.

Unfortunately, I suspect for some readers it can also call into question the entire model and discussion in what is an otherwise worthwhile book.

As a final point, and one that really isn’t within the control of the authors, I should note that my copy of the book began to shed pages within the first reading. This reflects the flaws of the publisher, but it really does affect one’s experience of the book.

The Bottom Line

Enhancing Employee Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach is a book I find myself unable to recommend with a clear conscience. For me personally, it provided some value in providing a framework that lets me describe and discuss “engagement” in a way that highlights the value to employees as well as the organization.

Many of the recommendations made by the authors (create a supportive environment; try to design jobs so they provide variety of task and call on a range of skills…) simply echo advice I’ve offered myself. The difference is that Whittington and his co-authors proffer evidence that these actions actually affect engagement.

Having said that, I fear that someone new to the area of employee engagement looking for sound advice and actionable recommendations would at best find themselves confused and frustrated, and at worst taking unprofessional or even illegal action.

If you do wish to mine those areas that provide evidence-based value, I recommend proceeding with caution and with an experienced OD professional at your side.

About Jamie Lawrence

Jamie Lawrence, HRZone

Jamie Lawrence is editor of global online HR publication and community HRZone.com. He is committed to driving forward the HR agenda and making sure that HR directors have the knowledge and insight necessary to make HR felt across the whole organisation. He regularly speaks to audiences of 250+ and has interviewed key HR industry names, including Daniel H. Pink. He has worked previously as a small business journalist and a copywriter and has published non-fiction that reached #2 on the NYT Children's Bestseller List. In his spare time Jamie likes writing fiction, films, fitness and eating out.

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