What does engagement sound like? Managers must learn to hear it

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

Probably the most common mistake I watch managers make daily in the workplace is addressing their reports as though they are in the same frame of mind as they are. Maybe yes, maybe no and not knowing is a risky proposition.

Just because you have one of your reports nodding their head doesn’t mean anything except someone is nodding their head!

You may have never thought about it but as a manager/business owner you need to be aware that engagement has its own voice, as does compliance and resistance, which are other frames of mind your employees can be in depending on the day, the conversation topic, what happened to them last night at home or this morning, what they were doing, who they were talking to just before they came to your meeting … et cetera, et cetera.

So now, what do I mean when I reference “frames of mind?” Frame — like a window frame — the place we are looking at the world from at any moment is more kaleidoscopic than fixed. (What you said to me yesterday was fine and welcome; say the same thing today after I have just had a tough conversation with a peer in another department and I may jump down your throat, much to your surprise and dismay.) People are always giving voice to their frame of mind if others would just listen and watch.

Engaged, meaning associated by choice, is a condition of being, and there are both ultimate and interim conditions of being to consider.

Ultimate engagement arises from commitments to choices made. Interim engagement is subject to the slings and arrows of everyday/every moment life and constantly in flux.

Ultimately, I am completely committed to the success of my marriage; in the interim, my wife has asked me to check under the house for a water leak!

Given my aversion to both maintenance and the underside of the house about the best I can muster up for this one is an “okey doke, honey!” and grudgingly crawl under the house after doing just about anything else I can think of that just “has to be done” before checking for the leak.

As it turns out, my wife knows that my ultimate commitment to the marriage always wins out over my weasel mind and she will get her report on the alleged leak sooner rather than later, so she doesn’t try to handle my dawdling.

Voice of engagement: “I am on it honey thanks for letting me know there may be a problem,” followed by action.

Voice of compliance: As above, “okey doke honey,” followed by going to the refrigerator, making a sandwich, watching some of the ballgame and then crawling under the house.

Voice of Resistance: “It rained last week and I don’t want to get muddy so I’ll get to it next week. It’s probably nothing,” followed by no action until asked again.

I hope that you can translate these personal examples into your own situations when addressing your team or another co-worker.

Here’s the deal: if you don’t check in with people you run the risk of talking to yourself and assuming that head nods mean “okey doke” or even “You got it boss.”

So, do you know your reports as well as my wife knows me? I didn’t think so.

How many times have you been burned by talking with your folks as though they are right there with you?

How many times have you known they were not right there with you and you went right on talking as though you could talk them into it?

How many times have you taken their silence to mean assent and walked away hoping you were going to get what you asked for?

Is this too basic? I wish it were and I don’t by any means want to insult anyone, unless it will help get this clear: when you are not winning as a manager start with where people are at. Address them where they are, not where you wish they were. Be curious, find out why they may not be engaged, ask what you can offer to address misunderstandings or fears directly. In the interim, getting in communication is the result to be produced, ultimately it will get you where you want to go.

Where are you assuming engagement, and getting egg on your face?


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