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IRF Study Examines 'Engagement Wildfire'

The field of engagement is a “wildfire” that risks doing damage unless organizations focus on performance and not simply on engagement, according to Engaged in What?, a study funded by the Incentive Research Foundation and authored by Theresa M. Welbourne, Ph.D, President and CEO of eePulse, Inc., FirsTier Banks Professor of Business at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and a Research Professor at the Center for Effective Organizations, Marshall School of Business, USC. 
The study has been published in five parts on the Incentive Research Foundation’s website at
“Employee engagement initiatives have spread like wildfire,” the study notes. “They have become incredibly popular, and by all counts their presence as organizational interventions seems to be expanding.” But researchers warn that even though employee engagement is necessary for organizations to grow, “gone unchecked or developed in an incomplete manner, engagement work can be confusing and lead to problems.” Because of this, they say, it’s imperative to assure that employee engagement-related programs are working for organizations instead of against them. 
The key to ensuring that engagement works for an organization is to identify and direct the role-related behaviors in which employees are engaged, says the study. Based on what researchers describe as a thorough analysis of employee engagement literature, they conclude that “engagement programs can enhance performance when the energy generated from engagement is directed on the path needed to achieve organizational goals … Engagement purely for the sake of being ‘engaged’ may lead to unanticipated results in the same way that a wildfire, gone unchecked, can result in unexpected and unwanted consequences.” 
The Key Question: Engaged in What?
The report is designed to ensure that employee engagement is managed in ways that meet the needs of the organizations that implement such programs. Welbourne and her team of researchers believe their report on employee engagement is necessary because, “while there is much research extoling the positive achievements made in this area … it is important to note that in addition to the numerous claims of engagement improving organizational performance there are still many unanswered questions and several areas where new knowledge is warranted.” 
There is a need, they say, to better understand “the rules of engagement – to more clearly know the condition under which engagement, in each form, works or does not work.” Two key questions to answer are 1) Engaged in What? – i.e., “understanding what employees can do in each of their roles to help employees link engagement to bottom-line business strategy,” and 2) What is the role of rewards and recognition? “If employees become engaged, what’s in it for them?” 
With all of the talk about engagement, they say, the subject of the link between rewards and engagement “seems to have taken a back seat on the journey. However, employees get important clues about what’s really important from the design of the rewards and recognition system. Thus a business can have a robust and stellar engagement plan in place, but if the rewards and recognition is sending conflicting signals about the behaviors employees should be engaged in performing, then the engagement plan may be in jeopardy.”
In a section of the report that reviews the history and timeline of engagement, the authors assert there is an “extensive amount of disagreement about what employee engagement is” and postulate their own theory, developed in prior work, that engagement is a “state where the employee is stimulated and motivated but not at risk of burnout.” They cite a finding from Welbourne’s prior study finding that “individual, team and firm performance were predicted by energy trend data. Energy is used as a leading indicator, with data collection more frequent than what is done with employee engagement (e.g., every other week, monthly, quarterly).”
The study covers the subject of engagement measurement systems available without much comment, but on the issue of what drives engagement, the authors conclude that “there is a strikingly obvious fact – that engagement is often a term configured to fit the needs of a particular study and not a concrete item with obviously discernible qualities.” 
They add: “Given the broad range of findings, numerous types of analysis conducted, lack of common definitions and excitement about linking outcomes to ongoing research … Some notion of employee engagement is necessary, but not sufficient for high organizational performance,” citing studies suggesting that “enablement” is possibly just as important and raising questions about some engagement studies for having the ulterior motive of trying to sell more engagement studies.
Engagement Alone Is Not Enough
While the study notes that “it is impossible to come away from reviewing this literature with a clear indicator of what engagement is or how it works,” Welbourne and her team suggest “it’s time to move forward” and propose a model for role-based engagement. “Engagement alone is not enough,” they say. “In order to understand how engagement might drive firm performance through people, one must determine how it works.” 
Finding out if people are “emotionally attached” or “going above and beyond,” they argue, doesn’t suffice, suggesting that “A role-based model provides a path to return to the roots of employee engagement. When specific language and definitions are used to classify and measure behaviors, then the link between engagement and performance can be mapped … A role-based model also provides a path to return to the roots of employee engagement. We can define the parts of the self that the employer values at work, allowing the employee to discuss making time to do more than just the job. We think the roles-based approach to engagement provides an avenue for taking this topic to the next level, which can help both employees and employers.”
The report concludes with a case study of an incentive and recognition program that purports to show how rewards and recognition can help drive results. The case study discusses how the Cleveland Clinic used a rewards and recognition program to reinforce its core-values in a way that the authors assert highlights the importance of “Engaged in What?” and having a reward program to help focus attention on the program. While pointing to the case study as an example of roles-based engagement, it only addressed the rewards and recognition involved in the program, omitting any information on other key engagement factors such as communications, learning, innovation, management coaching. In addition, the one result cited – increased levels of employee engagement and frequency with which rewards were distributed – didn’t include an increased level of patient engagement or other indices connecting the outcome to actual performance, an element the authors deemed essential earlier in the study.
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