Matt Tenney, Contributor

Engagement is an ongoing challenge for organizations and their human resource departments, one that has only been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the evolving working conditions that have drastically changed the rules of engagement.

Methods that were once thought to guarantee engagement and job satisfaction are not working.

Financial incentives aren’t the drivers of employee engagement that they used to be, and on-site office perks have lost their appeal in the hybrid and remote work environments many organizations have transitioned to. Because of this, leaders are struggling to find new ways to engage employees in the “new normal.” 

With engagement playing such a vital role in organizational success, it’s important to gain an understanding of the three types of employee engagement to determine what employees require for engagement and how we can meet these needs going forward.

There are three types of employee engagement: cognitive, emotional, and physical. When employees are cognitively engaged, they’re committed to their job, when they’re physically engaged, they’re invested in their work, and when they’re emotionally engaged, they have an emotional connection to their work. 

In this article, we will discuss the needs employee engagement strategies should address, examine the three types of employee engagement and how they are tied to these needs, and provide some tips for boosting each of the three types of engagement.

What Is Needed For Engagement

Employee engagement can be measured by the extent to which employees feel passionate about their work and how committed they are emotionally to the organization and its mission. 

An employee’s level of engagement is tied to how the employee feels about their work experience, how they are treated in the organization, whether or not they feel a sense of purpose in the work they do, and whether or not they feel that the organization is dedicated to an authentic vision. 

Whether in their personal lives or professional lives, people have certain needs that must be met to be engaged, enthusiastic, motivated, and committed. 

When it comes to work, some of these needs include technical and managerial competency, autonomy, recognition, a sense of purpose, and feeling that they are a valued member of the organization.

Technical Competency

Technical competencies are the knowledge and skills needed to carry out job responsibilities. These can be learned in an educational setting or on the job and vary depending on the industry. 

Employees need to be equipped with the right knowledge and skillset to do their jobs, and, in some cases, employers provide these tools or help employees develop them by providing training or other opportunities for learning.

Managerial Competency

To make progress and move forward in their careers, employees need general managerial competency. Engaged employees will pursue opportunities for professional growth and development that will help them move forward in their careers. 

This is why making continuous learning a part of your organization’s culture is important for maintaining engagement. It helps employees achieve managerial competency and fulfills the need for growth and development.To make progress and move forward in their careers, employees need general managerial competency. Engaged employees will pursue opportunities for professional growth and development that will help them move forward in their careers. 

It can also help an organization meet its current and future talent needs.

This is what is known as “career pathing.” This process aligns opportunities for an employee to grow and move forward in their career with the organization’s talent needs. 

In our interview with Dr. Linda Holbeche, she says, “I think this notion of career pathing is a useful one for management, as well as employees, to work with HR to create maps of job types and opportunities that can become a living system that people can tap into and see where opportunities may come up.” 

Autonomy

Autonomy is a need that more and more workers are demanding employers meet, and it’s become even more important for remote workers.

It has also been identified as a major factor in the job seeking habits of certain generational groups, with 42% of millennials indicating they would opt for a job that allows them to work independently on projects of their choice.

Autonomy involves allowing, even encouraging, employees to work independently, giving employees the tools they need to do so, and trusting employees to do the work well. 

An employee, especially one with an entrepreneurial spirit and innovation mindset, needs to be trusted to do their work well without micromanagement thwarting the process. Demonstrating faith and a belief in employees’ skills, abilities, and decisions is essential for engaging employees in their work. 

Recognition

Recognition is also an important component of any engagement strategy. There is strong evidence that suggests recognition is a great way to engage employees because it boosts self-esteem and personal competency.

Recognition is so powerful because it meets a core human need for both the employee and the manager. Meeting this need is a key aspect of a strong company culture because it increases job satisfaction, employee engagement, retention, performance, and the quality of work.

Sense of Purpose

When employees have a sense of purpose and feel that the work they do is important, employee engagement increases. When employees find their work meaningful, they will feel passionate about their work and perform their jobs with greater enthusiasm.

Having a shared sense of purpose with their co-workers and feeling connected to an organization’s mission, vision, and values provides a strong foundation for a high level of engagement.

However, to see a real boost in engagement, organizations should authentically demonstrate their dedication to stated core values through real, impactful actions.

Feeling Valued

Making employees feel valued is also key to keeping them engaged. When employees don’t feel valued by upper management, they will not be as loyal to an organization that views them as expendable and easy to replace. 

Demonstrating care for employees and helping them feel that the work they are doing is essential for the success of the organization will boost loyalty and engagement.

When these prerequisites are met, organizations will see more engagement among employees, which will lead to higher rates of retention, improved productivity, and increased profitability.

But there’s more to engagement than just understanding employee needs. Leaders also need to understand the different facets of worker engagement in order to determine how best to meet employee needs.

Three Types of Employee Engagement

Psychologist William Kahn was one of the first researchers to introduce the concept of employee engagement. 

Kahn wrote a paper called “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement” in 1990 based on his research to test the hypothesis that the varying levels of themselves employees physically, cognitively, and emotionally bring to their jobs influences their experiences of work and their performance.

In his paper, Kahn described the three main types of employee engagement: cognitive, emotional, and physical. 

Kahn supported the idea that engaging employees cognitively, emotionally, and physically helps them feel more secure and confident in their roles, feel that the work they are doing is worthwhile and meaningful, and feel more valued and supported mentally and physically.

Below is an overview of the three types of employee engagement as outlined by Kahn.

Cognitive Engagement

Cognitive engagement is the extent to which employees focus on their work. When an employee is engaged cognitively, they are better able to focus on their work, even during distractions and other work interruptions. 

This type of engagement is related to how an employee perceives and thinks about their job and the organization. It may be the most important type of employee engagement because it’s tied to the employee’s perception of the organization’s values. 

Employees who are cognitively engaged are on board with the organization’s mission, goals, and strategies and are aware of what they need to do to help achieve the organization’s goals.

This type of engagement requires an in-depth understanding of the organization’s vision and cultural buy-in. 

It also requires an employee’s awareness of their goals, a clear understanding of their job, what is expected of them, and the role they play in the organization’s success. 

In discussing the cognitive dimension of engagement, Kahn considered the meaning employees attach to their work and suggested that employees that were more knowledgeable about their jobs showed more creativity and were more confident decision-makers.

Cognitive Engagement

Engagement is inextricably tied to emotions. 

Employees need to feel committed to the organizations they work for, need to feel valued, and need to feel that they are contributing to something meaningful, all of which can influence and be influenced by emotions.

Emotional engagement is related to how an employee feels about their organization, co-workers, and leadership. It is influenced by the employee’s “in-the-moment” experience of doing their work. 

An employee’s feelings about their job, tasks, co-workers, management, and the organization determines the extent to which they are involved in the work they do. Emotionally engaged employees have positive feelings toward their job and will channel those positive emotions and feelings into their work.

Emotionally engaged employees are more invested in their jobs and more likely to experience job satisfaction. Having a high level of emotional engagement can also contribute to a positive work environment where it is easier for other employees to engage with their work.

Leadership can dramatically impact an employee’s emotional engagement, in both positive and negative ways. Let’s take employee recognition as an example.

We recently sat down with author Paul Marciano and discussed the important role recognition can play in motivating, or demotivating, employees:   

“Fundamentally, people want to be recognized and appreciated for the efforts they make. When you work really hard and you are recognized for it, you want to work harder. When you aren’t, or even worse when someone else gets credit for your work, that’s very demotivating for us.” 

Providing regular feedback, recognition, access to physical and mental healthcare, coaching, and a good work-life balance for employees will help them develop positive emotions toward the organization and also help to reduce work-related stress and negative feelings associated with their jobs.

Physical Engagement

Physical engagement involves the employee’s attitude towards their work, engagement in work activities, and the physical and mental effort they expend while performing their jobs. 

These activities demonstrate their investment in their job. Khan linked the amount of mental and physical effort one puts into their job with increased confidence.

Physically engaged employees feel enthusiasm for the work they do and have an improvement mindset. Physically engaged employees may also be more likely to take advantage of learning and development opportunities. 

Physical engagement is tied to physical (and mental) well-being. As we discussed in a previous article, one of the leading drivers of employee engagement is whether or not employees feel their leaders care about them and are invested in their health and well-being. 

We already know that when employees feel valued, they are more likely to be engaged and feel supported by their employers. When employees are healthier mentally and physically, they will be more physically engaged in their jobs.

A culture of health and wellness and engagement initiatives that focus on well-being make employees feel valued and appreciated because it shows that the organization supports them professionally and personally.

Employee Engagement Makes a Difference

As leaders struggle to understand what it takes to engage employees and forge engagement strategies to combat the challenges that lack of engagement and active disengagement can present, it’s important to keep in mind the tremendous impact engagement has on an organization’s chances for success.

Employee engagement can make or break a business because it affects a wide range of factors, including performance, productivity, profits, and business sustainability. It also has a significant impact on employee well-being, how well employees are able to serve customers, and is essential for recruiting and retaining top talent.

Employee engagement is equally important for employees because it improves job satisfaction, gives their work purpose, makes them feel valued, that their individual contributions are essential to organizational success, and improves their professional and personal well-being.

When employees are engaged, they tend to be happier in their personal and professional lives. An improvement in job satisfaction will lead to improvements in performance, loyalty, and cultural alignment, and it will inspire a true dedication to the company’s mission and vision.

In organizations with high levels of engagement, employees feel satisfied with and take pride in their contributions and the potential impact of those contributions. They are motivated to perform well for the good of the organization. 

This leads to a happy, harmonious work environment, high morale, and increased profitability. It also fosters collaboration and innovation throughout the organization.

To implement a sound employee engagement strategy, keep the three dimensions of employee engagement in mind. When you are able to engage employees cognitively, emotionally, and physically, you will have a high-performance team that is fully engaged and able to thrive. 


Matt Tenney is the founder of PeopleThriver and The Generous Group, two companies that aspire to create the best workplace cultures in the world.  Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence.  Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings.  His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.