You can’t get very far surveying the current wisdom of cutting edge management theory without coming across the issue of engagement. Organizations like Gallup and Towers Watson continue to do large scale research on the issue. Leaders across all sectors are talking and complaining about engagement. “Why won’t they just engage?!” I heard a leader say recently as she shook her head in frustration and banged her hand down on her desk.
There are three primary reasons for the lack of sustainability experienced in most efforts to bring higher levels of engagement to the workplace:
1) Top level leadership does not engage in the organizational transformation programs they initiate. There is want for someone or some program to “fix my people” but less willingness to begin the change process at the top.
2) Mid-level managers put up roadblocks that squelch implementation. With fires to put out coming from above and below, managers will not prioritize change efforts especially if top leaders themselves are not engaged.
3) Organizational change efforts overlook winning over the hearts of the people in the organization. Dr. John Kotter of Kotter International emphasizes that most change efforts have a mind/heart focus of 90/10 or 80/20. Kotter argues that to get sustainable transformation, successful organizations need to have at least a 60/40 heart/mind focus.
“Focus on the heart?” “We haven’t got time for that, we’ve got a business to run!” Such reactions are common place. But, so is the desire for increased engagement. This begs the question, “What is engagement, anyway?” Any definition will include at its core the emotional stance an employee takes towards his or her work. Engagement, in the final analysis is all about emotional connection. Leaders want their people to be enthusiastically involved. Leaders want proactive problem solving. Leaders want increased discretionary effort. An enthusiastic, proactive problem solver that takes 100% responsibility and gives 100% effort is someone who is fired up and passionate about what they do.
Stephen Covey taught that we now live in the “knowledge-worker” age. In the by-gone industrial-worker age, most of us were asked to hammer square pegs into square holes. The knowledge workers of today, however, are most often asked to figure out how to get square pegs into round holes. Workers who show up saying “Just tell me what to do” are dis-engaged and costing the organization money. Leaders who show up with a disinterest in learning how to win over “the hearts” of these workers are also dis-engaged and costing the organization money.
In the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best seller, Drive, Daniel Pink’s research clearly shows that knowledge-workers are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Today’s worker wants to feel that they’re valued enough to try out new ideas, have the satisfaction of getting really good at what they do, and feel that the work they do matters. Sounds a lot like the knowledge worker wants to be engaged. Why then is engagement such a challenge?
In a recent meeting I facilitated, one of the front line employees said, “I absolutely love my job, I just miss it. We have a lot of changes happening around here and not much appreciation for all the work we are doing. We have some new ideas, but no one is listening. Honestly, there’s not much gas left in the tank.”
This employee is clearly becoming dis-engaged. Her opportunity to try new ideas (be autonomous), grow in her job (gain mastery), and feel like what she does matters (be connected to purpose) are all being threatened. The irony here, again, is that she wants and her leadership wants her to be engaged.
The missing link is “winning over her heart.” Leadership must listen to how she feels about issues related to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. To do so, leadership must fully engage with this core sustainability strategy. If brought forth with a sense of urgency, transparency and authenticity, managers will prioritize and engage in the effort as well.
Leaders must also allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to hear feedback about their own leadership. Vulnerability modeled from the top will create an atmosphere of trust and interdependence. Simply put, a leader who wants engagement needs to stop banging her hand on the table and start having conversations with people at all levels about how they feel about issues that matter to them. Leaders that want engagement need to, as Stephen Covey once wisely said, “Seek First to Understand.” Real understanding involves putting yourself in someone else’s shows. It involves empathy. It involves connecting not just at the head but at the heart.
As a local resource on the topic, on April 22nd, we are offering a seminar entitled “Engagement Leadership.” Are you a leader challenged with the issue of engagement? Are you willing to take 100% responsibility for meeting this challenge? Go to our website for details.