How William Kahn Revolutionized Employee Engagement at Work

The study of employee engagement is still in its relative infancy—but where did it begin, exactly? Read on to discover the theory as proposed by organizational psychologist William Kahn, the so-called father of employee engagement.

A team of fully committed, engaged employees who will always go above and beyond is an incredibly valuable asset—at any organization. In our own research about employee turnover, we’ve found that engagement is crucial in ensuring employees do not leave a company. But what does employee engagement actually entail? Step forward William Kahn, the psychologist who developed and named the theory.

Along with defining employee engagement, Kahn’s primary aim was to identify the conditions that enable it to happen. He was particularly interested in “the moments in which people bring themselves into, or remove themselves from, particular task behaviors”.

In other words, how does engagement occur, and what prevents it? By asking this question, and framing our answers against Kahn’s pivotal theory, we are also able to ask ourselves what we can do to improve employee engagement.

William Kahn’s Theory of Employee Engagement

Parallels can be drawn between the findings of Kahn’s 1990 study, Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work, and the research into human motivation by psychologists such as Frederick Herzberg and Ryan & Deci. However, it wasn’t Kahn’s intention to build on these theories at the time. Instead, he sought to conduct his own research by observing and analyzing workplace behavior.

His research involved two workplace studies: the first in a summer camp and the second in an architecture firm. Through his time in these organizations, he defined engagement as an employee’s ability to harness their “full self” at work, and identified three psychological conditions that enable it:

  1. MeaningfulnessDoes an employee find their work meaningful enough (to the organization and to society) to warrant them engaging their full self?
  2. SafetyDoes the employee feel safe bringing their full self to work without risk of negative consequences?
  3. AvailabilityDoes the employee feel mentally and physically able to harness their full self at this particular moment?

His findings separate engagement from everyday hard work. A diligent employee, who is able to harness their full self, will display loyalty and ownership. For example, an engaged employee will tackle tasks without being asked simply because they want to, and because they believe that their extra effort will benefit their organization.

Kahn also found that engagement isn’t static—an employee’s experiences of the workplace in different moments can cause fluctuations in engagement. This is good news for employers, as they still have the opportunity to create an environment where engagement can flourish.

Applying Kahn’s Theory of Employee Engagement

In a 2015 interview with Workforce Magazine, William Kahn summarized how managers could apply his theory:

"Approach employees as true partners, involving them in continuous dialogues and processes about how to design and alter their roles, tasks and working relationships—which means that leaders need to make it safe enough for employees to speak openly of their experiences at work."

William Kahn Organizational Psychologist

Taking an informal and non-hierarchical approach similar to that popularized in Silicon Valley can create a confident and innovative workforce. However, behind all the quirkiness lie policies that recognize the importance of the individual. As Kahn highlighted, engagement occurs when a person is able to “harness their full selves” to their work.

Google’s Project Aristotle studied 180 teams within the organization, looking for patterns of successful collaboration. They found that teams built on “psychological safety” were the most successful. These teams were characterized by empathy, openness, and not wearing a “work face”—all key factors for engagement.

The most important thing an employer can do is develop a supportive culture that allows people to be themselves, where they are “safe” from unwarranted control or criticism. You don’t need a big budget or sophisticated facilities to understand the needs of your employees through focus groups, feedback surveys or working parties. It pays to listen.

Understanding Kahn’s Theories as Employee Engagement Drivers

How can we act on Kahn’s employee engagement theory, and use his research to motivate our teams? To answer that, we can look at the drivers in the Workday Peakon Employee Voice platform.

Kahn’s “meaningfulness” is embodied by our “meaningful work” driver. In practice, that means businesses need to make sure that each employee understands the value and impact their role has on the whole. It’s this genuine appreciation for making a contribution that motivates individuals to commit themselves fully to their role.

We see Kahn’s concept of “safety” in our “freedom of opinions” driver. Work should be a safe space for employees to voice their views without fear of reprisals. Without psychological safety, employees won’t feel able to contribute actively on a daily basis.

Kahn’s “availability” concept encompasses many aspects of the workplace. The physical “environment” needs to be right for a person to apply themselves. For example, does an employee have all the equipment they need to get their job done, and do they have the space to work individually and collaboratively? 

Meanwhile, “management support” and “peer relationships” reflect the interpersonal connections that enable an employee to harness their full self. All in all, the goal is to make sure that we are creating the right environment and culture for engagement to flourish—and that’s something Kahn would’ve been a big proponent of.

It’s fair to say that employee engagement theory revolutionized management practices. Its impact is extensive, from increased customer happiness, to high staff retention and, of course, the satisfaction of knowing that your team is genuinely happy. Thanks to William Kahn, every business can better understand how best to improve employee engagement.

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