Blog Post

William Kahn: Q&A with the Founding Father of Engagement

David Zinger

Founder: Employee Engagement Network

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.

D.Z.: What do you believe would be the most important thing individuals can do to enhance their own engagement? What about an organization?

W.K.: Simply becoming aware of engagement as a compelling dimension of one's work life, or as a facet of the organizational context, is a really useful start. I find that it is the questions that matter most: Am I engaged? When do I like myself at work? When do I feel safe enough to say and act according to what I think and feel? Posing these questions, and having the courage to both answer them honestly and follow where those answers lead, is itself the beginning of real engagement at work. And, too, posing these questions on behalf of the organization - What are we creating here, together? - is an act of engaged leadership.

D.Z.: Thank you so much for playing such a pivotal role in development of engagement and thank you for taking time to answer these questions. All the best in all of your work.

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.

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