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The Three Types of Employee Engagement and Why they Matter

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Three Types of Employee Engagement and Why they Matter

One of the most misunderstood concepts in management is employee engagement[1]. It’s often oversimplified, as if there’s one monolithic notion of employee engagement that we should all be aiming for. In truth, creating a workforce comprised of engaged employees is more complex than that.

There are three types of employee engagement, each of which contributes to a happy and successful workplace.

In this piece, we’ll outline all three types of employee engagement, how they differ and what actively engaged employees contribute to a well-functioning working environment.

What are the Three Types of Employee Engagement?

Dr Robert Talbot[2], building upon the work of Alexander Astin in the 1980s[3], developed a tripartite model of engagement, including these elements:

  • Affective Engagement (Emotional connection)
  • Cognitive Engagement (Knowledge and belief-based connection)
  • Behavioral Engagement (Intentions and Actions demonstrating connection)

Nowadays, these have morphed into Emotional Engagement, Cognitive Engagement and Physical Engagement. Let’s look at each of these terms in turn.

What is Emotional Engagement?

When we talk about employees being ‘passionate’ about their work, this is what we mean. Emotionally Engaged workers care about the values and objectives of their organization. Doing their jobs well makes emotionally engaged employees feel satisfied and overjoyed. They relish challenges and invest emotional energy in organizational success (or failure).

There is, of course, a downside to emotional engagement – when times are tough, it can negatively impact your workers. Nevertheless, this type of engagement builds loyalty, improves performance and results in good PR, since employees talk excitedly and positively about their employer.

Leaders are crucial in engaging employees emotionally. A recent study of 25,000 leaders by Edinger Consulting[4] found that the 10% who were ranked as most inspiring were also the most emotionally engaging. Emotional engagement is contagious, and an inspiring leader can do much to instill excitement and ambition in their workforce and engage employees.

What is Cognitive Engagement?

However, it’s not all about inspiring deep and positive feelings. The second element of employee engagement is more functional. Employees must understand and agree with the aims and objectives of their company. They must be invested in pursuing those objectives and understand the steps to be taken to achieve those ends.

This doesn’t mean that everyone must memorize the mission statement or be able to quote the findings of the annual report at will. Cognitive Engagement is more about knowing where the company or brand fits within the marketplace ecosystem. This enables employees to work in sync with corporate plans, while protecting the brand.

Cognitive engagement is also about each employee understanding their individual role, their job responsibilities, how it relates to others in their team and department, and how it contributes to the corporate mission and business outcomes.

The responsibility for cognitive engagement lies partly with HR in its onboarding processes and implementation of other employee engagement strategies, but also with leaders who must communicate these complexities to employees.

What is Physical Engagement?

This last aspect of employee engagement can be understood in two senses. Firstly, it’s the physical presence of employees (or hours committed if they work from home). Secondly, it’s the health and energy levels of employees when they are present.

In high-turnover organizations, signs of low physical engagement and actively disengaged employees may include a high number of sick days and unexplained absences, an unwillingness to work overtime, or a downturn in productivity. The responsibility for low physical engagement almost always lies with the employer. Where workplaces are exploitative, without active appreciation or reward structures, physical engagement suffers.

Developing generous healthcare programs, employee social clubs, events, celebrations, awards, and incentives can help boost morale, energy levels and physical engagement. It can also make employees feel valued, thereby also boosting their job satisfaction and team engagement. Some workplaces are inherently physically draining – construction, manufacturing, healthcare. In such circumstances, varying work details and building sufficient downtime are essential.

Improving the Employee Experience to build Engagement on Three Fronts

Gen Z has very different expectations of the workplace experience than previous generations. They expect engagement, on all three fronts described above. This is good news for an employer, because if successful, they’ll together build an environment which improves performance, rewards productivity and improves staff retention, while boosting the bottom line. Everyone wins, in other words.

Improving engagement has a considerable way to go, however. A Gallup poll[5] revealed that only 35% of US employees identify as engaged. This is better than the international cohort of engaged workers, which stands at just 15%, but still leaves almost two-thirds of workers feeling disengaged.

In the modern workplace, success means building an employee-led working environment, which maximizes all three types of engagement described above. Let’s finish by looking at some methods to achieve that end.

Improve Emotional Engagement with charitable support, so that employees can see that you care about more than profit margins. Develop programs to help disadvantaged communities and cohorts of employee, and this will boost pride and a sense of belonging.

Boost Cognitive Engagement with fun yet informative team-building events and away days. There are plenty of ways to instill a corporate vision without resorting to yawn-inducing induction sessions. When onboarding is made more fun with interactivity, gamification and inspired leadership, employees will want to contribute to the company’s success.

Soliciting feedback then actually acting upon it also builds a sense of cognitive engagement, by rewarding a problem-solving mindset with positive change.

To Improve Physical Engagement, create fun and active social programs which involve as many staff as possible. Take guidance from your employees on what they’d most benefit from, whether it’s building an in-house gym, offering subsidized sports club memberships, developing a cycle to work program, or changing the menu of the staff canteen.

Some programs and policies are universally popular. For example, offering duvet days, instituting a strict minimum downtime between shifts, or making allowances for childcare needs. These are amongst the innovations which improve attendance and physical engagement.

Employee Engagement is Central to Employee Performance

Nothing contributes more to a high-performing workforce more than engagement. Satisfied, rewarded, and appreciated employees work harder and more productively.

Fortunately, employers understand this truth more than ever before, and have more technological means at their disposal to take advantage of this deep insight.

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