As some of you know, I was recently awarded a distinction for my CIPR internal comms certificate course (yay!). For my final assignment, I explored the various tactics that internal communicators can use to help employees physically, cognitively and emotionally harness themselves to their individual roles and organisation (i.e employee engagement).
But what if some people are just un-engageable?
We each think, feel and act in our own unique way, so it seems logical that we’ll react differently to attempts to help us connect with our CEO or commit to organisational change. Emerging research suggests that our personality traits – the ‘relatively stable cognitive, emotional and behavioural characteristics that help establish our individual identities’ – can predict our level of engagement at work. Here’s how…
Openness to Experience
Conscientiousness is one of the five basic personality traits – or factors – proposed by psychologists Robert McCrae and Paul Costa in their influential Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality. The other traits are: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience and Agreeableness. According to FFM, these factors capture the essence of all human personalities; we differ only in terms of the amount/level of each factor, as determined by personality assessments.
Behaviours: the epitome of an ‘ideal employee’, people with high amounts of Conscientiousness are efficient, dutiful, deliberate and achievement-striving.
Evidence: Studies consistently show that employees with high levels of this trait are more likely to be engaged at work. For example, work psychologists Ilke Inceoglu and Peter Warr explored engagement levels in over 700 employees from several countries, including the UK, and found that Conscientiousness – particularly the achievement orientation subcomponent of the trait – was a better predictor of work engagement than the other Big Five factors, age and gender.
Underlying mechanism: One suggestion is that employees high on Conscientiousness are motivated by the need to achieve goals which is also a core component of the work engagement concept. It may also be that conscientious workers have a strong sense of responsibility and therefore are more likely to absorb themselves in their job tasks.
Behaviours: people with high levels of Neuroticism tend to be tense, irritable, shy, and lack self-confidence.
Evidence: Researcher Saar Langelaan and colleagues analysed the personality and engagement survey scores of 205 Dutch employees, and found that those high in Neuroticism were low in work engagement. This finding has been replicated in several other studies.
Underlying mechanism: According to Langelaan, work engagement is a positive affective-motivational state characterised by high pleasure and high energy use. Neuroticism is strongly linked to negative affect (NA), a short-term mental state characterised by fear, nervousness and anger (or low energy use). Highly engaged employees tend to report low levels of NA.
Behaviours: people high on Extraversion are generally sociable, enthusiastic, energetic, adventurous and outgoing
Evidence: Studies exploring the link between Extraversion and engagement has produced mixed results, with some showing Extraversion to be as good a predictor of engagement or weaker. However, researchers Stephen Woods and Juilitta Sofat found that the Assertiveness sub-factor of Extraversion – characterised by being driven, competitive and energetic – was more strongly associated with engagement than the Gregariousness sub-factor (being sociable and chatty) and the broader Extraversion trait.
Underlying mechanism: According to Langelaan and colleagues, people high on Extraversion are more likely to experience positive emotions and are therefore more likely to experience the positive state that is engagement. Another explanation centres on the psychological condition of meaningfulness, an important predictor of engagement defined as the positive feeling that one’s work is worthwhile and important. According to Woods and Sofat, employees high on the Assertiveness sub-factor are more likely to be engaged because their high energy and ambitiousness leads them to attach greater meaning to their efforts at work.
Behaviours: people high on Agreeableness tend to be forgiving, warm and flexible.
Evidence: Along with Openness to Experience, this trait has been found to be a weaker predictor of engagement than the other three factors. However, leadership expert Andrew Wefald and colleagues tested several personality-engagement statistical models using survey data, and found Agreeableness and two other personality traits – Conscientiousness and Extraversion – were linked to engagement.
Underlying mechanism: According to business psychologist Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, and colleagues, engaged employees tend to be efficient task-completers. Since most work tasks require teamwork and agreeable employees encourage teamwork, they’re more likely to be engaged.
Openness to Experience
Behaviours: the quintessential creative, people high on Openness are intellectually curious, imaginative, artistic and excitable.
Evidence: Pakastani economist Nayyar Zaidi and colleagues found that employees with high levels of Openness were more likely to be engaged than their conscientious counterparts. Likewise, Dr Chamorro-Premuzic and colleagues (2015) found that openness was the second best predictor of engagement.
Underlying mechanism: According to Zaidi, William Kahn, the so-called ‘godfather of employee engagement’, saw engaged employees as innovators within their organisation; therefore, employees high on Openness – who are naturally innovative – are more likely to be engaged.
Implications for internal communicators
At first glance, it’s not good news for us IC bods. If, as the abovementioned research suggests, an employee’s unique and enduring personal characteristics significantly influences their level of work engagement, the task of driving up employee engagement (a staple in many IC job descriptions) may be trickier than we thought. Personality traits are thought to be consistent across time, and so if people who are low on Conscientiousness or high on Neuroticism are recruited into an organisation and then become disengaged, attempts by internal communicators to help them connect with their roles and the organisation may prove futile.
However, before we all tear up our engagement strategies and go on a well-deserved holiday, it’s important to note that while the findings presented suggest that some personality traits are better predictors of engagement than others, none of the studies concluded that having high levels of one trait would prevent you from being engaged full stop. That’s because, even though our personalities cause us to view our work, colleagues and employer in a unique way, we’re all capable of being engaged at work.
Professor Brad Shuck and colleagues propose that communication within an organisation can help engagement develop in each employee, irrespective of their personality make-up – via two routes:
- It can motivate employees to be engaged by aligning their values with the organisation values
- It can give employees the freedom to engage, achieved by creating trust and integrity within the organisation through transparent and consistent communication.
This cuts to the heart of what we do as internal communicators. We live for providing line of sight to employees and removing communication barriers between senior leaders and employees.
So there you have it. We’re all engageable. But we’re also brilliantly unique, with our own life experiences, views and set of personal characteristics which influence our behaviour at work. As internal communicators, it’s important that we remember this when trying to help our people engage with our organisation.