UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Engagement is different from job satisfaction, research finds


Studies have shown that employees who are motivated to do their work are typically more productive than average employees. Not only that, but the more engaged workers are, the more likely they are to deliver positive experiences to customers which helps lead to higher customer loyalty and long-term customer value.

Seeking to advance the discussion on work engagement, UNC Kenan-Flagler Assistant Professor Michael Christian has conducted research with two colleagues which explores whether employee engagement adds value to the traditional list of job attitudes in the prediction of job performance. First, Christian and colleagues Adela S. Garza, a doctoral candidate at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University and a former student of Christian’s, and Jerel E. Slaughter, Associate Professor at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management and a former advisor to Christian, set out to more clearly define just what work engagement is since some researchers and analysts often confuse work engagement with job attitudes or job satisfaction.

Christian and his colleagues define work engagement as “a willingness to invest personal resources including cognitive, emotional, and physical resources in the work itself.”

Christian and the team examined 91 studies on the topic. Their research reveals that work engagement “is not just old wine in a new bottle,” says Christian, assistant professor in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Department of Organizational Behavior. “Using meta-analysis we found that work engagement is not perfectly correlated with job attitudes. That finding is really important because it adds to the ability to predict an employees’ job performance,” Christian adds.

The findings are important for decision-makers who are constantly seeking ways to increase employee engagement and, ultimately, organizational productivity, says Christian.

Differentiating Between Job Satisfaction and Attitudes

Before conducting the research, Christian believed it was likely that work engagement wouldn’t be much different than job satisfaction or job attitudes. “But instead I found that work engagement is a unique construct,” says Christian. “Work engagement is a different reference point than say job satisfaction (content with compensation, a feeling of connectedness with co-workers, etc.). Work engagement has to do with my level of engagement with the tasks at hand and my motivation for completing those tasks, irrespective of compensation. If you like the tasks and what you’re doing, it’s highly indicative of job performance,” Christian adds.

Another surprise that Christian and his colleagues encountered in their research is that leadership plays less of a factor in the level of an employee’s job engagement than they’d anticipated. By comparison, employee personality and how an employee’s job is designed tend to play greater roles in work engagement.

Still, that’s not to say that leadership doesn’t play a role in work engagement. “Leaders who are charismatic and can provide a vision for the organization tend to have more engaged followers,” says Christian.

Tips for Managers

Christian offers several recommendations for managers to increase employee engagement. For starters, managers should try to devise job roles which offer employees greater diversity and opportunities to stretch their skills. “If managers make more of an effort to design jobs that way, they’ll have a greater likelihood of engagement,” says Christian.

It’s also important for managers to recognize that some workers are more likely to be engaged than others based on their personality traits, says Christian. For instance, highly conscientious workers are more likely to be engaged in their work since they’re more apt to make personal investments in the work they do. This is also true of people with proactive and positive personality attributes.

Christian also suggests that managers use job rotation and employee training to increase the variety of an employee’s work and ultimately their engagement. It also helps to show employees the results of their work, perhaps in the result of a successful project or how their actions may have contributed to a positive business outcome as another means to foster employee engagement.

The Ebb and Flow of Work Engagement

As part of their research, Christian and his colleagues also note the importance for managers to recognize and understand the ebb and flow of work engagement since an employee’s engagement can change from day to day as a result of their mood or perhaps a personal issue they’re wrestling with.

“If a manager wants to engage an employee on a given day, make a positive comment about their work on that day,” says Christian. “Positive feedback can have a dramatic effect on a person’s work engagement.”

Christian and the team also discovered that job stress doesn’t necessarily have a negative effect on work engagement. Within many organizations over the past few years, businesses have continued to run lean from a staffing standpoint while employee workloads have remained incredibly high despite marginal changes in compensation.

Despite these pressures, Christian and his colleagues discovered that cognitive demands are positively related to engagement. “Mentally challenging work might require individuals to focus on the work and reap the rewards in terms of the meaningfulness of their jobs,” he says.

Looking ahead, Christian plans to explore other facets of work engagement. For instance, he expects to examine the relationships between an employee’s engagement at any given moment instead of their overall or average engagement.

“Immediately after lunch I  might not be as engaged as I might be during other points during the day but there might be other points in time where I am feeling particularly engaged and I’d like to understand what the drivers of those moments are and how strongly those moments are predictors of future performance,” says Christian.

In support of these efforts, Christian is currently working on early stage research with a hospital in Texas to examine how engagement impacts work safety. He’s hoping to publish the results of those findings within the next two years.