Engagement Follows Commitment

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Engagement Follows Commitment

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 9th June 2017. Revised 22nd April 2018.

4 min read

Two climbersIf there were ever two words that are almost interchangeable, it’s commitment and engagement.

The Collins English Dictionary (CED) describes both as accepting an obligation or pledging allegiance.

But when you look, it’s not hard to drive a wedge between them.

And driving a wedge is essential to understand how, as a manager, you motivate your people for optimum performance.

First there’s commitment. Then there’s engagement. Engagement follows commitment.

Employee Commitment

Staff can commit to a firm in any of three ways:

Emotional commitment whereby the employee wants to turn up and work;
Practical commitment whereby other obligations make it necessary for the employee to turn up and work;
Legal commitment that obliges the employee to turn up and work.

The differences are subtle.

  • Emotional (or affective) commitment is valuable. If an employee wants to turn up, if they are emotionally committed, other management intervention like leadership is likely to work.
  • If the person is turning up because they have bills or because they’ve signed an agreement, the relationship becomes economic – the “you pay me and I’ll turn up” situation. Attendance does not necessarily mean that the employee will give their best. This happens in practical and legal commitment.
  • Affective commitment is won by management through their day-to-day actions. The other two forms of commitment are achieved through the signing of contracts and the receiving of a wage. Affective commitment is by far the most valuable, and by far the most easily lost by poor management.

Affective commitment is an essential precursor to employee engagement.

Engagement Follows Commitment

Hidden in the depths of the CED is one definition of engagement that gives a clue to its psychological meaning: to undergo interlocking, as you would when engaging or meshing gears.

Using this definition, it’s easy to see why an employee commits first and then engages. An employee must first turn up regularly and be willing. Then, if the conditions are right, they’ll engage with the job.

An employee is said to engage with their job when the two – person and job – are ‘meshed’. This definition brings a whole new meaning to engagement. Engagement is when the employee doesn’t just turn up – they turn up and excel. It’s the point at which motivation is high and performance is maximised.

Engagement occurs where:

  • The demands of the job are met by the resources that the employee can bring to bear, in knowledge, skills and technology – and the employee is seeking to get ever better at the work;
  • The employee feels energetic, identifying with the work and doing something they consider valuable and of significance – the work is not just about doing something to get paid;
  • The employee has the autonomy and responsibility to get on and do the work as they consider best, and they have a say in how the work is organised;
  • It’s where, from time to time, the employee experiences a state of ‘flow’.

Flow is where the person is so ‘meshed’ with the work that they lose track of time. They are 'lost' in the job and sense little of their surroundings.

Getting Commitment and Engagement

Both commitment and engagement are winnable – both can be achieved through deliberate and planned management action. But it’s strictly commitment-building first, then engagement. If there’s weak commitment, it’s difficult to achieve engagement. And if commitment is damaged by, for example, a management decision perceived as unfair, engagement will cease.

To heighten commitment, managers must arrange the right employment conditions and build the right relationship between them and their staff. Managers must get beyond the economic exchange of contract and pay to the social exchange of relationship-building. We’ve blogged before extensively on this.

Engagement is achieved by careful job design and getting the right conditions to prevail when the employee is actually doing the work. Engagement is easiest to achieve in roles embracing creativity – like architects, software engineers and carpenters. It’s most difficult to achieve in routine jobs like shop assistants, call-centre operatives and drivers. For engagement in this latter group, the jobs must be redesigned.


Commitment is achieved through employment conditions. Engagement, and ultimately high performance, is achieved though job conditions.

If you’d like help in achieving commitment and engagement, call us.