Employee Engagement

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Kahn undertook a qualitative study on the psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement by interviewing summer camp counsellors and staff at an architecture firm about their moments of engagement and disengagement at work. He defined disengagement as the decoupling of the self within the role, involving the individual withdrawing and defending themselves during role performances. Disengaged employees displayed incomplete role performances and were effortless, automatic or robotic .

Kahn found that there were three psychological conditions related with engagement or disengagement at work: meaningfulness, safety, and availability. He argued that people asked themselves three fundamental questions in each role situation:

(i)How meaningful is it for me to bring myself into this performance; (ii) How safe is it to do so?; and
(iii)How available am I to do so?

He found that workers were more engaged at work in situations that offered them more psychological meaningfulness and psychological safety, and when they were more psychologically available. In the only study to empirically test Kahn’s (1990) model, May et al (2004) found that meaningfulness, safety, and availability were significantly related to engagement. They also found job enrichment and role fit to be positive predictors of meaningfulness; rewarding co-worker and supportive supervisor relations were positive predictors of safety, while adherence to co-worker norms and self-consciousness were negative predictors. Resources were a positive predictor of psychological availability, while participation in outside activities was a negative predictor. Overall, meaningfulness was found to have the strongest relation to different employee outcomes in terms of engagement.

An alternative model of engagement comes from the ‘burnout’ literature, which describes job engagement as the positive antithesis of burnout, noting that burnout involves the erosion of engagement with one’s...
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