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Four Uses of the Word Engagement – Part 2

As I discussed in Part 1 of this article, “engagement” is a word which peppers our language in numerous contexts; a fuzzy social concept that is difficult to explain and sometimes poorly understood. One of the reasons for this fuzziness, is that we use the same word to describe more than one phenomenon. In the first part of the article I talked about “an engagement” and the “experience of engagement.” In this section I will focus on two more interrelated concepts.

“Engagement in” an interaction is the investment which an individual makes in that engagement. In the spheres of employee, customer, learner and user engagement, this is what most people mean when they talk about engagement.

When William Kahn (1990) wrote the first article about engagement in organisations, he described engagement as behavioral, cognitive and emotional investment. I propose a whole person perspective, where the investments which people make in interactions can be physical, social, emotional, intellectual and/ or spiritual. The fact that someone is physically doing a job of work does not mean that he/ she is emotionally or intellectually invested. Optimal engagement involves all five of these aspects of person-hood.

The 'engagement of´ employees, customers, users and learners, refers to the efforts which the organisation or its representatives make, to encourage these people to invest their efforts in positive interactions with the organisation. These efforts also require investment from the party who wishes to foster engagement.

For example, if I want to increase employee engagement within a team, I might invest time and social and emotional energy in one-on-one conversations with each member of the team, in an attempt to understand their goals better. I might then invest tangible resources to improve work conditions, to foster collaboration through implementing on-line internal social platforms and to better deploy the individuals in roles which tap into their strengths and which energize them. My ongoing investment in interactions with these individuals should ideally provide a return on their investment which is appealing to them and which motivates them to engage further.

To close the loop, I suggest that engagements are bilateral in nature, involving investment from both parties, each seeking a return on their investment. Thus we “engage with” other entities within organisations, with both parties playing a role in the investment made by the other.

In the next post, I will discuss “Choice in Engagement”.


Kahn, W.A., 1990. Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of management journal, 33(4).

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