University of Leicester
2015BarnesREDSocSci.pdf (1.7 MB)

‘Making a Difference’ and ‘Doing Something Worthwhile’: An Ethnography of Employee Engagement

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posted on 2018-07-10, 15:18 authored by Ruth Elizabeth Barnes
Employee engagement (EE) is an emerging field of academic research focussed on the positive experience of work and its relationship with improved organizational performance. Much of this research relies on surveys and statistical analyses to assess EE’s consequences and levels. This quantitative approach neglects the subjective perspective; in particular how individuals understand and experience EE within a specific organizational context (Chalofsky and Krishna 2009; Shuck et al. 2011). The current study addresses this deficiency through an interpretive ethnography of a UK civil service department; a sector also under-represented in the literature (Gatenby et al. 2009). Interviews, observations and documentary evidence from twelve months’ fieldwork were analysed narratively and thematically to provide insights into both the content and process of individual EE. The analysis revealed that participants understood and experienced EE as a combination of positive thoughts, active emotions and changes in work behaviour which were applied simultaneously to meaningful work. That work connected participants with aspects of individual identity, people and/or values which were personally important. Cultural and other contextual factors influenced participants towards and away from EE. When these factors pulled in opposite directions at the same time, participants acted in accordance with the most salient perception (Ashforth 2001; Ashforth et al. 2008), even when this led to increased personal risk. This showed participants demonstrating agency within their EE experiences; making choices about when to apply all of their energies to work (Kahn 1990). Overall, this study provides an alternative and under-represented perspective on the experience of EE. In particular, the centrality of meaningful work, the influence of specific cultural elements and the mediating role of perception all contribute new insights to ongoing debates within the extant literature.



Goodwin, John; Hammer, Nikolaus

Date of award


Author affiliation

Centre for Labour Market Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • DSocSci



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