Obstacles to engagement: everything counts | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal 

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

– Upton Sinclair

Assuming that we are all in agreement that engaged employees are preferable to ones who are not, let’s take a brief look at actions we take as managers that actually discourage the engagement we say we want.

If I have heard this once I have heard it a hundred times from a potential client in an initial meeting: “Mike, what I am looking for is more leadership from my people.” Notwithstanding that this statement is often made thoughtlessly the first time around, my standard response when I hear it is, “Then what we need to do is determine what you and your managers are doing to discourage leadership.” Silence follows.

Once everyone starts breathing again we can begin a fruitful dialogue.

The truth of my experience is that when senior managers strongly suggest they are interested in more leadership, they are muddling leadership with engagement and their real interest is more engaged employees. If it is really more leadership they want, we’ll have a further conversation about how much control they are willing to give up.

In either case the task becomes one of working with both senior and midlevel managers to distinguish how they may be unwittingly discouraging the very engagement they profess to be seeking.

Much of what managers do to discourage engagement will have a reasonable explanation in the minds of the managers and will look like blatant chicanery in the eyes of employees. Some cases in point:

• “Our manager says she wants us to speak our minds and offer ideas and suggestions. When she holds a meeting she tells us to hold our questions and comments to the end of her presentation. Then as she gathers her things to leave she asks if we have any questions.”

• “Senior managers tell us we can contact them directly; when we do they ask our managers why we are bringing this matter to senior management attention rather than handling it more locally.”

• “The only way for me to make more money in my current position is to create opportunities for overtime. The easiest way to do that is to slow down so my work takes extra time and then I get labeled as a mediocre to poor performer.”

• “I can easily complete my assignments most weeks in 30-35 hours; I am good at what I do. There’s no real incentive to perform at a higher rate because every time I finish early my manager adds work from some of the poorer performers.”

• “I’ve offered five suggestions for improvement in the past year and not received a positive response on any of them. Managers promised they would get back in writing on all suggestions within 72 hours of receipt. I’d just be happy with that.”

When confronted on this behavior, managers will often respond that it was a one-time occurrence, they were pushed for time, it made sense when they took the action, etc.

Now hear this, all ye who would manage: The basic employment relationship is predicated on a mutually understood imbalance of power. You have more than they do.

The majority of employees, no matter what the organization, are keenly attuned to this imbalance and are on constant alert for any sign that their status in the “royal household” is in jeopardy. This is to say that if you make a sudden move to scratch your head don’t be surprised when they duck. This underlying and unspoken unholy understanding is only made worse by our failure as managers to acknowledge the truth of it.

In my experience as a manager I have directly said to employees, “I seek your partnership. You are not worth much to me if our relationship is based in fear. Unless I can trust you to speak up when there is something to be said I will be essentially working alone. Whatever we need to do to work through whatever fear you have of me or managers in general I’ll do it. I am not prepared to hear after the fact that you knew something and didn’t express it.” Not everyone who received this offer accepted but everyone who accepted has not been disappointed. Nor have I.

Take a look at the bulleted items above and examine yourself not just by reading the examples but by checking yourself against the spirit of the message. Can you come up with your own list of unconscious behaviors that may be a disincentive to engagement?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.


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