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White Paper: The Foundation For Global Employee Engagement

By Ashley Whillans
Ph.D. Harvard Business School

March 11, 2018

Editor's Note: This white paper was co-authored by Charlotte Blank, Russ Frey, Allan Schweyer, Ashley Whillans, Ph.D., and Chris Winkelspecht, Ph.D. under the direction of our benefactor and creator, Maritz.

Maritz has been cool enough to establish this website and give us free editorial rein to do whatever we want, so long as we speak credibly about applied behavioral science. (Editor’s Note-To-Self: Heh heh heh).

That said, Maritz created PeopleScience because the company has always used behavioral principles, even before it knew their names. Beyond this platform and its decades of pioneering work, Maritz’ commitment to behavioral science is supported by its hiring of Charlotte Blank as Chief Behavioral Officer and white papers like this.

So take a few minutes, pour yourself some tea or wine (coffee and beer are also acceptable) and learn a few things.




Fully engaging employees has never been more important – or less understood. Despite years of effort and substantial investments, few organizations have made real progress in achieving true engagement within the ranks of their workforce.  

As the prelude to a series of design guides for leaders and HR practitioners, this paper introduces a holistic model of engagement that is underpinned by insights gleaned from the behavioral sciences. We believe the foundational “human” dimensions of engagement described in this model – and the evidence-based principles and practices associated with each – provides a roadmap for organizations that wish to emulate the success of the high- performing organizations that have managed to create a culture of employee engagement. 

Read and download the entire white paper here 

Introduction & Summary


In 1990, William Kahn, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Boston University, published a paper entitled Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work (Kahn, 1990). As the title suggests, Kahn’s paper addressed personal and emotional engagement at work – perhaps for the first time (Welbourne, 2015).  

Kahn’s work marked the beginning of a torrent of papers, theories, and definitions of employee engagement. Indeed, it may have spawned an entire industry focused on the guiding and serving the thousands of practitioners responsible for creating the conditions necessary to fully engage employees in their work and increase productivity (Morgan, 2017; Kowske, 2012). 

Despite enormous investment, it is uncertain whether and to what degree the combined efforts of so many individuals and organizations have improved employee engagement (Morgan, 2017). Whatever progress may or may not have been made, U.S. and global engagement scores have remained largely stagnant for the past 16 years (Mann & Harter, 2016).  

In 2000, the Gallup Organization began tracking employee engagement across the United States. That year, only about one-third of employees said they were engaged at work … roughly the same percentage as reported in 2016 (Mann & Harter, 2016). Results from more than a decade of Towers Watson surveys (Guaspari, 2015; Hollon, 2013) and Aon Hewitt surveys (Aon Hewitt, 2015) tell the same story – employee engagement levels have not advanced since organizations began measuring them some 16 years ago (Guaspari, 2015; Galahan, 2015).  

These results raise questions about the efficacy of our collective efforts to date. Three key problems may be holding organizations back. First, while as many as 80 percent of organizations conduct engagement surveys, most use annual surveys, which may not allow for timely interventions. Secondly, many organizations fail to take meaningful action based on results (Bersin, 2014). Finally, too much emphasis may be placed on broad-based initiatives and incentives designed for the entire workforce or for large teams within the workforce. So, initiatives can seem removed from the work of individual employees or the work groups with whom they most frequently interact. 

While universal motivators exist, people are also individuals who are motivated, inspired, and disengaged in countless ways. Engagement cannot be a one-size-fits-all proposition (Robertson-Smith & Marwick, 2009). Lastly, and most importantly, organizations typically approach employee engagement as a set of initiatives as opposed to a way of being – a series of discrete practices as opposed to a culture. Employee engagement must become a part of what an organization is – its values, beliefs, and culture (Tsai, 2011). 

Viewed holistically, the model identifies the essence of what people need from their work, how they can help their organizations succeed, and identifies a path for organizational contribution to a better world.

To generate sustained improvements in employee engagement, leaders require a clearly defined, evidence-based model and a measurable means of assessing progress. While individuals are only fully engaged on a one-to-one basis, organizations can put in place the foundations necessary to support an engaged workforce by establishing dimensions of engagement that are so fundamental to human nature that they can be reliably described as “human universals” (Brown, 1991).

In this and subsequent papers, we describe such a model for employee engagement. The model (Exhibit 1 below) was developed based on an extensive review of academic and business literature, experimentation and by “crowd-sourcing” feedback from professionals working on the front lines of employee engagement worldwide. While it represents the Maritz point of view, it is also offered as a starting point in what we hope will be an ongoing conversation with executives, academics and practitioners to shape and refine it over time. 

The seven dimensions of the model are summarized on the following pages and more extensively in a series of practitioner guides that comprise a practical resource library. It’s also important to note that this model – the system of employee engagement – is greater than the sum of its individual dimensions. Viewed holistically, the model identifies the essence of what people need from their work, how they can help their organizations succeed, and identifies a path for organizational contribution to a better world. Because when people flourish, they create flourishing organizations. And when organizations successfully integrate all seven dimensions, they have the power to help build a flourishing world.  

As the Global Employee Engagement Model evolves and matures, organizations can assess their progress and potentially use it as a tool to benchmark executive performance. At a minimum, it should guide leaders in making better decisions and in implementing proven techniques that drive engagement and sustain performance. 

A final note: While this paper refers to “employees” throughout, we believe the engagement model applies in equal measure to the growing numbers of independent contractors and contingent workers who increasingly contribute to the success of most enterprises. 

Read and download the rest of the white paper here.


By Ashley Whillans
Ph.D. Harvard Business School
By Charlotte Blank
Chief Behavioral Officer, Maritz
No Picture default
By Allan Schweyer
No Picture default
By Chris Winkelspecht
By Russ Frey
Director, Intelligence, Maritz Behavioral Science & Innovation


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