This is the second in a two-part interview with William Kahn, who is considered to be the founding father of studying employee engagement. You can read part one of his interview here.
Dr. William Kahn is a professor of Organizational Behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. In the comprehensive engagement textbook by Catherine Truss and others, Employee Engagement in Theory and Practice, William Kahn is acknowledged repeatedly for his legacy as the founding father of engagement. This is based on his seminal paper in the Academy of Management Journal, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” (1990).
William coauthored an intriguing chapter with Emily D. Heaphy, in the textbook mentioned above, Employee Engagement In Theory and Practice called, “The relational contexts of personal engagement at work.”
Here are three quotes from that chapter:
“Engagement thrives in the context of some relationships and wilts in others…relationships are metaphorically, the nervous system of the organization…”
“Work tasks cannot be cleanly separated from work relationships.”
“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.”
D. Zinger: How do we foster more meaningfulness for our work?
W. Kahn: Answering this requires a dissertation, or several, and I imagine that there are a number of such works that are already in progress. The short answer is that leaders need to discover, in the context of their relationships with members, what those members experience as meaningful. Most likely, meaningfulness comes from the sense that one is considered valued and valuable, appreciated for what he or she can offer that others cannot. To be seen as meaningful to the larger purpose is, indeed, a cause of feeling a sense of meaningfulness.
D.Z.: What does “availability” mean within the context of engagement?
W.K.: When organizational members are pre-occupied – that is, already occupied such that there is little room left for them to excavate and bring their selves into their work – they are unlikely to personally engage. We are emotionally, cognitively and psychologically unavailable for all of the reasons that you can imagine: troubling events in our personal lives, destructive politics at work, fears about job security, narcissistic bosses and the like.
D.Z.: Can you tell us a little bit about the importance of the relational context of engagement?
W.K.: The more work that I do with the engagement idea, the more convinced I am that the conditions of engagement – safety, meaningfulness, availability – are facilitated or undermined by the immediate relationships that workers have with bosses, peers, and subordinates. The good or damage that these people can do, in acts large and small, to make others feel valued or diminished is unending.
W.K.: My pleasure. It’s always gratifying to see people take these ideas seriously and use them to create more engaging settings.
If you’re keen to have a comprehensive understanding of employee engagement, I encourage you to study the textbook: Employee Engagement In Theory and Practice.