Employee well-being. Engage. Make it so.

Employee well-being.  Engage.  Make it so.

Industrial-Organizational (I/O) Psychology has a long history with studying and influencing workplace climate toward the accomplishment of multiple, sometimes conflicting objectives.  One of the earliest and most popularly known of these efforts were the Hawthorne Studies at Western Electric in the 20’s.  A decade before, early personnel psychology was taken with the ideas of Frederick Taylor.  You may remember the father in Cheaper by the Dozen, an efficiency expert who applied the principles of scientific management to his family.  If it works for large companies, why shouldn’t it work for large families?

Scientific management took an engineering approach to workplace efficiency.  At Hawthorne, a new world opened up, looking at the interaction between the worker and workplace to explore new avenues for efficiency.  Researchers explored the effects of changes in working conditions like lighting, work hours, and breaks.  It would be logical to assume that finding the optimal levels of these things would produce the best results.  But what they instead found was that changes themselves tended to increase productivity, which tended to decrease again when a given study was completed.  This has been interpreted in many ways, and sometimes dismissed as insubstantial – “it’s just a Hawthorne Effect.”  The assumption here is that people were simply responding positively to being watched, to be special enough somehow to be included in this important research. 

The larger dynamic that took hold was that the human factor makes a difference as well.  Productivity was more than simply reducing tasks to their elements of movement and eliminating wasted time and effort, it was also about the human/machine/environment interaction.  Additionally, it was about more than just rewards and punishments, including the larger social context.  People could learn and be influenced simply by watching others, how they behave, and what happens to them.

Job satisfaction took hold, as researchers began to see mounting evidence that employee attitudes have an impact on organizational success.  Meta-analytic evidence shows corrected correlations between job satisfaction and important outcomes like customer loyalty (.32), retention (.36), productivity (.20), and profitability (.15, Harter, et al., 2002).  Ben Schneider and colleagues demonstrated many robust relationships between employee satisfaction and organizational success.  One study replicated findings that I researched over several years finding that attitudes tend to predict later organizational success measures more robustly than the reverse (Schneider, et al. 2003).  This provides some evidence regarding the possible flow of causation, from attitudes to intentions to behavior to success. 

Today, engagement has captured the imagination of businesses trying to improve workplace climate and employee experience to help the organization succeed.  It has elements of satisfaction, commitment, motivation, energy and effort.  In another blog post here called Daily Engagement You Say? I discussed some research on strategies around keeping up levels of interest and finding meaning in work that makes time seem to disappear sometimes.  This is among the highest forms of motivation, and naturally, organizations are eager to foster it.  As stated by Macey et al. (2009), an engaged workforce has a feel of urgency, focus, intensity, and enthusiasm; and it has wide-ranging implications for behavior and organizational success.

Wiley (2012) has another take that resonates today with the plethora of stories in the news about abusive practices in many workplaces.  He outlines basic needs employees have when they enter into an employment relationship, things like honesty, opportunity, growth, and fairness.  Done right, employees will deliver with enthusiasm and commitment, ultimately leading to better productivity and organizational success.  In 2016, the APA published the latest results of their Work and Well Being Survey, providing compelling evidence of beneficial effects of such traditional topics as recognition, involvement in decisions, work-life balance, and job satisfaction. 

In short, many issues that have been found to be important for employees over the decades are as important today.  Employees hunger for meaning, fairness, and respect.  Creating a workplace that enhances employee well being (including engagement and employee experience) will give you a competitive advantage in the marketplace.  Success depends on the message as well as the measurement.  For any given survey question or topic, two messages are sent:  this is important, and this is something about which leadership is open to ideas for improvement.


American Psychological Association (2016).  2016 Work and Well-Being Survey.  Center for Organizational Excellence, Washington DC.

Bandura, A.  (1971).  Social Learning Theory.  General Learning Press (New York).

Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L, & Hayes, T. L.  (2002).  Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes:  A meta-analysis.  Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 268-279.

Macey, W. H., Schneider, B., Barbera, K. M., and Young, S. A.  (2009).  Employee engagement:  Tools for analysis, practice, and competitive advantage.  John Wiley & Sons (Malden, MA). 

Roethlisberger, F. & Dickson, W.  (1939).  Management and the Worker.  Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA).

Schneider, B., Hanges, P. J., Smith, D. B., and Salvaggio, A. N.  (2003).  Which Comes First: Employee Attitudes or Organizational Financial and Market Performance?  Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 836–851.

Taylor F.  (1911).  Principles of Scientific Management.  Harper (New York, NY).

Wiley, J., & Kowske, B.  (2012).  Respect:  Delivering results by giving employees what they really want.  Jossey-Bass (San Francisco, CA). 





Joe Colihan