Navigating the undercurrents: the other side of engagement

30 October 2015

Navigating the undercurrents: the other side of engagement

In this article Dr Ann Parkinson and Dr Richard McBain share with alumni an update on their most recent research into the issue of differing levels of engagement.

In this article Dr Ann Parkinson and Dr Richard McBain share with alumni an update on their most recent research into the issue of differing levels of engagement:

Navigating the undercurrents: the other side of engagement

Twenty five years after Kahn first described engagement and at least 15 years of focus from both consultants and organisations, at least two thirds of people report that they are not engaged.   Rather than questioning why, organisations have just tried harder. It is time to understand the darker side of engagement. 

Engagement emerged during more prosperous times of the 2000s however the context has changed and organisations still expect people to be as engaged as they were in good times.  With little research on the consequences of the global financial crisis on engagement, even fewer scholars have looked at those who are not engaged or actively disengaged. 

Many organisations are still combatting the aftermath of recession following the crisis using cost reduction, public sector transformation and austerity measures leading to work intensification and organisations relying on engagement to boost productivity and their survival.  The cost of this for employees has been competing demands on work and personal lives.

Engagement has been ‘stretched and bent’ to meet different agendas and blur constructs (Truss et al, 2013; Saks, 2008).  Recently Jenkins and Delbridge (2013) have drawn a distinction between hard and soft approaches suggesting a focus on engagement to produce performance, based on maximising employees’ effort and intensifying work is very different from the ‘positive, work-related psychological state’ suggested by engagement scholars (Albrecht, 2010).  The softer approach, characterised by meaningful work, autonomy, development and positive relationships  (Kahn and Heaphy, 2014; Alfes, 2013) is in danger of being overwhelmed by the stress, exhaustion and self-defence responses that forced ‘over-engagement’ can bring. 

The negative consequences of expecting engagement, rather than encouraging emergence from meaningful work experiences, raises both the ethics of expecting people to work more than their contracts but also the disengagement that can be triggered by exhaustion and stress.  As well as the impaired wellbeing outcomes, individuals can experience withdrawal and alienation, work spilling over into home lives, workaholism, burnout and exhaustion with possible physical and psychological health impacts.  For organisations effects can be manifested in negative work behaviours ranging from lateness and absence through bullying to theft or sabotage.

Earlier research (Parkinson and McBain, 2013), showed that employees that were simply not engaged were bored, unstimulated by their jobs and did not believe in the value of their work whereas when actively disengaged they experienced emotional reactions such as frustration, anger, disappointment and feeling let down leading to loss in confidence, feeling ‘out of the loop’ often resulting in tiredness, taking time off or leaving.   It also highlighted the role of line managers in activating and deactivating engagement, especially through micromanagement or not being respected or felt trustworthy, highlighting the importance of building relationships and feeling supported.

This suggests that organisations need to recognise that latent disengagement potentially has built up during recent years of cutting back and the dangers of expecting engagement from employees to enable them to cut costs or increase profits.  Whilst pragmatically many employees will have stayed in jobs they may have become disengaged.  Reengaging them needs meaningful work, a realistic workload, autonomy and control and support from ‘good enough’ managers.



Albrecht, S.L., (2010). Employee engagement: key questions. In Albrecht, S.L. (Ed.), Handbook of Employee Engagement (pp. 3-19). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Alfes , K.,  Shantz , A. D,  Truss, C.,  & Soane,  E. C. (2013) The link between perceived human resource management practices, engagement and employee behaviour: a moderated mediation model, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24:2, 330-351

Kahn, W.A. and Heaphy, E.D., (2014), Relational contexts of personal engagement at work, in Truss, C., Delbridge, R., Alfes, K., Shantz., Soane, E., Employee Engagement in Theory and Practice, Routledge

Jenkins S, Delbridge R (2013), ‘Context Matters: Examining ‘Soft’ and ‘Hard’ Approaches to Employee Engagement in Two Workplaces’, International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 24, no. 14, pp. 2670-2691

Parkinson, A and McBain, R, (2013), Putting the emotion back: exploring the role of emotion in engagement, in Ha¨rtel, C, Ashkanasy, N, & Zerbe, W, Individual Sources, Dynamics, And Expressions Of Emotion, Emerald

Saks, A. M. 2008. The meaning and bleeding of employee engagement: How muddy is the water? Industrial & Organizational Psychology, 1(1): 40-43.

Contact Image

Contact Us

If you have any questions, please contact the Alumni & Development Team by email at or by phone on +44 (0)1491 418 843.