One of the biggest mistakes leaders make about engagement at work is revealed in the question they frequently ask: “how can we better engage our people?” The answer to that question is that, ultimately, “you cant”. Let me explain. Engagement is a dance, its not a solo performance by the organization. This is probably the most misunderstood…and under-researched…. thing about the whole idea of engagement, which is that the individual worker has a choice as to whether to engage or not, no matter the circumstances. That choice is as important as anything which the organization does.
I can hear the responses now: “that’s not true, we implemented a recognition program last year and it engaged a lot of people!” No it didn’t: it created a shift in the environment in which people got recognized more than they had. That environment, which is also called culture, was perceived favorably enough by people that they had a sense of well being, i.e. they liked it, it made them feel good. What normal person doesn’t like being recognized for a job well done? And as a result of that shift in how people felt, that emotional shift, more people chose to put themselves more enthusiastically into the job and increase their psychological commitment to the organization.
When you read about engagement you always hear about what the organization can do to improve it. That is OK, its necessary but not sufficient: its like teaching only one of the pair how to tango, and forgetting that both need to know the steps. Rarely do you read about what the individual’s role is in this, what they can do to enhance their own engagement levels, what type of personality it takes to be a real “engager”, what benefits they get from engaging. In case people think this aspect isn’t that important, let me tell you a short story: when I travel, which I do a lot, and go to almost anywhere in Europe, I meet people who ask me what I do. When I say that I work in the area of morale and engagement at work, they almost always say “oh that’s about driving the workers harder (that’s the pleasant version, others talking about “screwing” them). In other words, there are whole countries where almost anything the organization does is countered by an attitude which is anti-management, anti-organization and as a result certainly anti-engagement. Whole countries whose workers are choosing not to engage because it gives the “other side” (management) too much advantage. Should we be surprised that Europe’s performance is so poor, over such a long time? The sad part about this is that engagement is such a driver of performance, that if the workers in those countries chose to engage they would ultimately benefit from the growth this would drive, from the increased job security which growth would bring, the increased compensation and promotional possibilities. Not only that, they would feel good 8 or more hours a day, because engagement at work is about allowing positive emotion and living from it. They would even be healthier. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot…
I use this example to demonstrate the power of choice at the individual level, and how it can ruin even the best planned engagement efforts. People have to want it, know that it works for them and not against them, and be willing to move from the emotional state of positive feeling which a work culture can generate in them (if they let it) to the behavior of engagement.
So lets be clear: your engagement efforts will melt away unless you:
1. Understand that the choice to engage at the individual level is as critical as anything the organization can do…so you had better….
2. Have the right people in the job, people who are ready, willing and able to engage
3. Continually remind your people not only of the values and culture which you wish to nurture, but also what the benefits of engagement are for themselves and the whole organization: the “virtuous circle” which brilliant companies such as Google use to their advantage every day.
It takes two to tango.