William Kahn has been called the “father of employee engagement” and was credited with coining the term in a 1990 paper—a concept that helped spark a whole genre of management consulting and profitable industry of survey tools measuring how dedicated workers are to their jobs.
But the way his original idea has been adapted over the last 30 years by consultants and corporate America is “something I’m not proud of,” the Boston University professor said when Forbes called him recently to get his views on “quiet quitting,” the TikTok phenomenon about dialing back effort on the job and setting work-life boundaries that has spurred a deluge of media stories.
That’s because in Kahn’s view, many consultants and managers who picked up on his original research shifted “the focus on the person to the focus on the employee,” he says. Engagement “got redefined as how absorbed and attentive and energized someone can be on behalf of the organization”—rather than on employees’ personal connections with their work.
As the “quiet quitting” debate has grown—is this simply Gen Z rejecting hustle culture? Nothing but a new phrase for coasting? A “kernel of collective action”?—it’s focused more attention on the ubiquitous concept of employee engagement, which corporate America uses to measure how connected workers are with their work. (It’s on the decline, by the way, with just 32% of U.S. employees saying they’re engaged at work, according to Gallup.)
How has all the focus on an “engaged” workforce heightened expectations of what makes a “good” employee? Is the idea that many people now see setting boundaries as “quitting” a byproduct of corporations’ emphasis on “engagement”? As one physician advocacy group founder wrote on LinkedIn, “why are people being punished when they ‘meet’ expectations?”
To try and understand how we got here, Forbes called up Kahn to get his views on the latest viral phenomenon. Excerpts of the conversation have been lightly edited for space and clarity.
McGregor: Is it correct that you coined the term employee “engagement”?
Kahn: The term I phrased was actually personal engagement, which is what does it mean for a person—a human being—to bring more or less of themselves into their role at work. It was snatched up and then transformed into employee engagement. And the reason I’m fascinated by that is because it shifted the focus on the person to the focus on the employee. It got redefined as how absorbed and attentive and energized someone can be on behalf of the organization. That’s a different question than what does it mean for them to be absorbed because the work and the role taps into something authentic about them as people.
McGregor: What did the initial piece of research find in 1990 that everyone latched onto?
Kahn: [When people are engaged, they] experience themselves as the person they most want to be. They say what they think and feel. There’s a real human being there as opposed to a bureaucratic functionary. I identified three conditions for why they’re able to do that. [There is] the idea of psychological safety, which is it’s safe for them to say what they think and feel and argue the points they want to argue. There’s also the idea the work actually has some meaning for them and that they’re psychologically available—that is, they’re not distracted or preoccupied by other things in the workplace or in their lives.
What people latched on to is a slightly different question, which is a much more superficial idea of … how do we get people really engaged in doing their work as much as possible? They didn’t really look at the real findings. They didn’t really look at the psychological pieces. They just latched on, frankly, to the phrase.
McGregor: What are they missing?
Kahn: We think of people as human resources, human assets, human capital. And we forget the word “human.” The thought experiment I always do with people, with organizations and leaders, is to imagine you took the word “human” really seriously.
Engagement is no longer radical, but at the time [of the original paper] it was. Most theories of motivation were extrinsic. You pay people enough, you show them the career ladder, you give them boosts in their career, you give them job titles, they’ll work hard. I’m a psychologist. It’s much more psychological.
I think the reason we’ve heard this term ad nauseum is because, frankly, it became a big business. There are consulting firms out there who created engagement surveys and they then built a huge business of getting companies to adopt it as a metric.
McGregor: It feels like “engagement” has come to mean less how personally connected you are to your work, and more how much extra work you are willing to do. How do you think that happened?
Kahn: Essentially what you’re talking about is, do we as employees have discretionary energies and ideas that we’re withholding? I think you’re right. Organizations want to know how can we intentionally get more from our investment. You can’t help but think about sort of exploitation and organizations just wanting to get more out of people without necessarily having to pay more. That’s certainly one possible take. It’s a little bit cynical. For some organizations, it’s more true than others.
I’d say 80% of organizations use the metric [of engagement] thoughtlessly. They use it as performative metrics for managers and leaders, but they don’t really have any thoughtful interventions around it.
McGregor: What do you think about this term “quiet quitting”?
Kahn: This whole Great Resignation stuff—people refusing to go to the office anymore, working from home, moving to Denver—I see this as sort of a seismic power shift. When you talk about this new TikTok phrase, I think of it as a much more active version of the more passive aggressive “disengagement.” When we disengaged, we didn’t tell anybody about it, right? But if we’re “quiet quitting,” it isn’t so quiet if we’re posting it on TikTok. I see it not unlike a different version of workers taking back their own sense of autonomy and control over their work lives.
McGregor: So is “quiet quitting” really any different from classic disengagement?
Kahn: I would say it is a more extreme, in-your-face, public form of disengagement and coasting. It’s now about making a statement and not just sort of flying under the radar where I hope no one notices. The fact that people are actually posting on it and cheering one another on—for me, it’s the public, collective nature of it that makes it different. https://embedly.forbes.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2F1TMvKFV-fiQ%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D1TMvKFV-fiQ&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2F1TMvKFV-fiQ%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=3ce26dc7e3454db5820ba084d28b4935&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube
McGregor: Do you think it’s a good measure for companies to be using?
Kahn: It’s fine for organizations to use [engagement] as a blunt instrument. There’s nothing wrong with that. But most organizations stop there instead of actually saying, oh, these parts of our workforce seem to be disengaged. Let’s go discover and explore what that’s about and how we, as an organization, are contributing to that lack of engagement. If they’re only using it because they’re supposed to, or they’re using it to reward or punish leaders or managers without actually training them and equipping them to do something much more sophisticated about that lack of engagement, then it’s inauthentic—and employees know it.
McGregor: So if managers feel like they’re facing “quiet quitting”—or disengagement—what should they be paying attention to?
Kahn: I’m a psychologist so I actually believe in the power of conversation and vulnerability. I would probably not create another measure. I would create really thoughtful listening circles, where managers are encouraged to meet with groups of employees and talk openly about the pull to quietly quit. If you’re feeling that pull, what would help you reverse it? When you create top down measures, which are done topeople, they don’t trust it.
By Jena McGregor, Forbes Staff