Showing leadership through employee engagement | Contributor

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

A short time ago, while leading a workshop, I was asked the following question by someone who sounded like an experienced manager: “What do I do with an obviously talented report who just doesn’t seem committed to the work he has been assigned?”

Following the question, the manager and I engaged in a brief dialogue to establish the “signs” that the employee was not committed.

What we determined was enlightening, yet not all that surprising. The manager was not necessarily reporting on the results the employee produced, she was reporting on her observations of the mannerisms of the employee. (She didn’t like his attitude.)

The results were fine, though not exceptional, and the employee was often overheard discussing matters related to fantasy football with colleagues in the break room or during time that could be used for additional production.

I am in and around a lot of managers and supervisors in any given year. It is not uncommon for me to hear similar concerns expressed by many who have management responsibility about what they perceive as the insufficient level of engagement on the part of their employees.

Of course, all the relevant studies would agree with them. Employees across occupations and positions are not engaged at high levels.

What the studies don’t tell you is why the engagement level is low.

For my part, I’ll be the first one to say that I believe employee engagement is the responsibility of the employee, when I am talking to employees.

And when talking with managers, I’ll be the first one to tell them that employees’ engagement is their responsibility.

The conversation depends on where you are in the relationship, and make no mistake about it, engagement is a matter of relationship.

Like any other relationship worth being involved in, you cannot simply do your part. You are either in for the whole thing, or not at all.

As the conversation continued with this particular manager, I asked an intentionally provocative question: “Have you ever asked this employee what he finds so engaging about fantasy football?”

The manager came back quickly with: “Why should I have to do that?”

The point of the question was to establish where the manager stood in regards to any responsibility for this employee’s level of engagement. I inferred from her quick response that she felt her responsibility was limited.

I went on to ask whether she understood that fantasy football was a fairly complex topic requiring considerable research and attention to detail and nuance.

Yes, it was a game that concerned a sport, but the skills involved in gaining proficiency called for dedication, study of statistics and a commitment to keep up to date with an ever-changing landscape of information. What if she sat down with this employee and explored his interest in depth, strictly for the purpose of understanding what it was about this game that the employee was so passionate about?

Might an exploration like this allow her to understand what it was about the game that captured this employee’s interest and warranted such freely given dedication?

Perhaps then she might be able to consider structuring the employee’s work to take advantage of his natural interests and get more of the “attitude” she was looking for as well as more productivity.

She didn’t buy it. And so it goes.

By now you are probably thinking that this encounter I have described is an exception, and that managers who follow a compliance-based approach to managing productivity and overall performance are the exception.

I beg to differ, and I beg you to consider that if you don’t recognize your own, or know your manager’s, basic attitudes about employee engagement, then your employee base, your organization’s working capital, is at risk.

Intuitively, I have suspected that engagement, productivity, retention and profitability are intertwined like the links of the DNA helix. I came to this belief this by observing myself in relationship to whatever work was required of me.

But now, with all the research, we can go beyond just belief or intuition and I think we owe it to ourselves as business owners and managers to do just that.

Thanks to a timely tweet from an associate a while back, I received a heads up on a posting from Bret Simmons, titled appropriately enough, “Employee Engagement and Performance: Finally some Credible Evidence.”

You might well heed Simmons’ closing words to his post: “If you find yourself lamenting that your employees don’t appear engaged, you are going to have to do something different.”

The corollary to this is, of course, that if you are unwilling to do anything different, then you can reduce your suffering by not expecting anything to change.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at

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