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William Kahn: Father of Employee Engagement

In 1990, when Jack Welch was leading General Electric to ever-greater heights by preaching the power of firing 10 percent of his employees each year, Dr. William A. Kahn advocated a different approach.

Kahn—a professor of organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business—published groundbreaking research in the prestigious Academy of Management Journal in which he coined the term “engagement” in reference to employees and their workplace.

At the time, organizational leaders were focused on a top-down approach to getting employees more motivated to work harder. Their emphasis was on changing the way people thought about their work.

It’s About How We Feel at Work

Kahn believed that was the wrong approach. His research in a 1990 paper entitled “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work,” demonstrated that the problem was less about employees being the right “fit,” or lacking financial rewards, but fundamentally it was about the way they felt.

“The engagement concept was developed based on the premise that individuals can make real choices about how much of their real, personal selves they would reveal and express in their work,” Kahn later told an interviewer. “That premise was radically different than the operating assumptions of the time.”

Meaningfulness, Safety, and Availability

Indeed, Kahn’s paper crashed upon the human resource and organizational behavior scene at the time. He argued that the conditions necessary for employee engagement were meaningfulness in the work, psychological safety, and psychological availability.

Employees would be engaged and offer discretionary effort to their jobs, he argued, if they felt that:

  • They were doing something important to contribute to organizational success.
  • They were enjoying rewarding and supportive relationships with supervisors and coworkers.
  • They were afforded the physical and psychological resources they needed to accomplish their work.

Among these, Kahn emphasized the role of relationships in the workplace. “Work tasks cannot be cleanly separated from work relationships,” he wrote. “When workers are considered as persons, not just employees, relationships assume great prominence; it is in the context of relationships that people make choices about bringing their selves fully into their work.”

Engagement vs. Disengagement

Kahn described work disengagement as employees’ cognitive and emotional withdrawal from their job and the organization. These are employees doing just enough to remain employed but offering none of their cognitive or emotional energy to the job. They are what you might call clock punchers.

Kahn’s seminal research has since been cited by hundreds of studies building on his work. In one paper from Industrial and Organizational Psychology, William H. Macey and Benjamin Schneider found that discretionary effort provided by engaged employees is not just more effort; it is effort that requires personal initiative, the kind of effort that can only come from people who feel safe and secure in their jobs, well-connected emotionally with co-workers and leaders, and highly-invested in the meaning of their work.

In other words, these are the very kinds of employees who Kahn described. Today, more companies than ever are asking about how to develop employee engagement. As for General Electric, they wisely abandoned their policy of firing 10 percent of their employees each year long ago.

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