Engagement, Fairness, and Care

Engagement, Organizational Health, and Sustainability

Over 20 years of organizational research assures us that a fully engaged workforce predicts enhanced organizational health and sustainability as indicated by: 1) improved morale and intention to stay; 2) increased organizational citizenship (going above and beyond); 3) reduced turnover; 4) stronger business performance; and 5) a ready pipeline of next-generation leaders. It's the kind of place talented people are drawn to!

Given these considerations, it seems there is good reason for management to care about promoting engagement. And now may also be a good time to begin thinking about how to move the needle on engagement in your organization in 2016. What might you do to make a difference? We prompt you to reflect on this in our Call to Action.

With this question in mind, let’s consider what the research tells us. I draw upon the work of Christina Maslach from UC Berkeley, who pioneered some of the best research on engagement.

The Burnout-Engagement Continuum

Maslach and Leiter[i] defined engagement as “an energetic state of involvement with personally fulfilling activities that enhance one’s sense of professional efficacy.” Its opposite, burnout, is a state of accrued stress and strain that depletes our capacities to function effectively. Burnout not only affects personal productivity, it can also impair our physical health and psychological well-being.

Maslach and her colleagues operationalized this burnout-engagement continuum in a survey that measures what people are experiencing on three bi-polar dimensions: exhaustion–energy, cynicism–involvement, and inefficacy–efficacy. As the labels imply, engagement consists in scoring above the median, toward the right end of these dimensions (energy, involvement, and efficacy). Burnout is indicated by scoring in the opposite direction (exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy).

Typically, the first two dimensions constitute leading indicators of the efficacy dimension. If one scores toward the exhaustion and cynicism end of the first two dimensions, it’s likely that performance issues (inefficacy) are either present or on the horizon. On the other hand, if one scores low on either of the first two dimensions (mixed results) at time 1, it is likely that at time 2, there will be a more stable change for the better (engagement) or for the worse (burnout).

Exhaustion and cynicism tend to travel together. There is a high correlation between them (r=.55). If either of these conditions is present, we can regard it as an early warning sign. Intervention may be required. If on the other hand, both exhaustion and cynicism are indicated, not only is there reason for concern, there is reason to expect that a turnaround will take longer and require more effort.

The Tipping Point: Fairness

In summary, if results on all three dimension of the burnout-engagement continuum are positive, the indication is a stable state of engagement. If all dimensions are in a deficit condition, a stable state of burnout exists. And if the results are mixed, it can be treated as an unstable state; things could get better or worse. So, what will tip the scales?

Research has identified risk factors for burnout that may tip the scales. They relate to the felt sense of fit between the person and the job and organization. These risks fall into six domains: 1) workload; 2) personal control; 3) reward; 4) sense of community; 5) fairness; and 6) values. Felt incongruities (lack of fit) in these areas of work life are predictive of burnout, and congruity is predictive of engagement

Risk of burnout is not based on personality (resilience) alone. Context matters. Our resilience to strain and our vulnerability to burnout are affected by the quality of the environment in which we work. As most experts in employee engagement will tell you, the relationship with one’s supervisor is critical, but so is the legacy culture that affects how we treat one another and what we value.

Of the six risk factors, the one that has proven most predictive of burnout or engagement is fairness. In a longitudinal study, those who reported incongruity in the area of fairness moved from an unstable state to burnout. Just as important, those who experienced their workplace and their supervisor as fair moved toward engagement.

Fairness: More than Justice, It Requires Care

In some of the research, fairness is defined as an equitable exchange, i.e., what we get for what we give. But experience tells us that it is more than that. It's also about how we are treated as compared to others. Even more broadly, it's about how consistently the organization treats people fairly. Is fair treatment something we have learned to expect, or is it something we have reason to worry about.

Fairness is not appraised based on the scales of justice alone. That's why transformational leadership has proven more effective than transactional leadership (which is based on exchange) when it come to winning commitment and earning the trust of followers. Within transformational leadership there is an element called "consideration." It's the followers' perceptions that the leader truly cares about him or her, and, more generally, demonstrates this ethic of care for others.

Commingled with the cognitive appraisal of fairness is the belief that my leader, management in general, cares about me. We are not treated merely as means (productive resources), but as ends (persons). This positive regard for us is expressed through an ethic of care, which cannot be faked for long. It is made manifest in daily behavior, attitude, actions, and especially in dialogue.

Call to Action

Consider how you express fairness and an underlying ethic of care:

  • Do you include some more than others in your meetings, communications, actions?
  • Do they know why they are or are not included? Do you provide a rationale?
  • Do you sweep issues under the rug, ignore tensions between people, or do you deal with them?
  • Do you have the skills and readiness to surface differences or issues, or do you need training?
  • Do you regularly recognize interdependencies, the efforts of all, their distinctive contributions?
  • Are you mindful that acts of kindness, respect, and care are contagious, as is their absence?

As you reflect on these questions, think of specific work-relevant situations and relationships. Notice how responsive your answers are to the six risk factors for burnout, and the three dimensions of the burnout-engagement continuum. Do your reflections suggest changes that will boost others' energy, involvement, and efficacy? How might you get started in pursuing such change?

For more information:

  • Register for an informational webinar.

  • Write to us at Information@generativityllc.com.

  • Call us at 401.885.1631.                                               


[i] Maslach, Christina and Leiter, Michael (2008). Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 93, No. 3, 498-512.