What engages employees may be a surprise

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

In the past several years much has been written on the topic and value of employee engagement. There are engagement surveys you can purchase, statistics you can review, consultants to hire and books to read, by the bushels.

In my view engagement is a worthwhile topic but remains largely misunderstood, and certainly not to the level where the information provides any concrete, individual guidance. Performance issues and engagement scores may be related, but the correlation only really matters at the level of the individual.

Consider this: A wife yells at her husband, who has his eyes glued to his desktop screen, “You are not listening to me!” She is dead on, he’s not. But does that mean he’s not engaged?

Actually, he is very engaged, with what is in front of him on the screen. People are always engaged, it just may not be with what we consider to be important, and that is a critical element that managers may be missing.

As managers, what we often don’t seem to get is that our role is not so much to create engagement as it is to direct it. If this sounds counter to what you have been reading, told or imagined yourself, I’m not surprised.

A manager in a class I was delivering recently asked what she could do about the attitude of one of the younger workers reporting to her. He just didn’t seem as committed to his work as she would have liked. I asked about the quality of his work, she indicated that it was OK, but just OK. In her mind “committed” was something employees should be.

OK, but just OK, is an indication that the young employee is sufficiently engaged to comply with what is expected of him. I asked the manager if just OK was a problem and her response was telling.

“I’d like to see more enthusiasm from him,” she said. All right, now we were getting somewhere, the manager was confused. I mentioned to her that what she wanted, enthusiasm, was a personal preference, not a legitimate requirement of the job. She didn’t seem to like this very much, so we continued. I asked her if there was anything the employee in question did seem committed to. She responded with fantasy football.

So, I asked whether she had ever asked him what he found so engaging about fantasy football. I could tell by the look on her face that she was shocked and maybe even offended by my question. Her response matched her facial expression: “Why should I have to do that?”

I try to be pragmatic — stay focused on what works and leave the judgments and moralizations to people who have more time than I do, or maybe who actually care about that kind of thing.

You tell me you have a problem; I begin looking for a solution. I don’t worry about who is right or wrong or what ought to be happening. Actually, I think this may be most managers’ problem with engagement — they are operating like there is some ideal state. Really there are really only two states, and neither is ideal: 1) You are getting what you want, or 2) you are not getting what you want.

My response to the manager rocked her back even further.

“Look,” I said, “you brought up the issue, you are apparently the one with the problem. I am looking at the situation and seeing whether we can uncover a way to get in communication with this young guy since telling him he needs to be more committed does not seem to be getting the job done. Would you agree with that?” She then nodded her head yes. “So now”, I said, “You have an option available that wasn’t there before, you can give up your agenda and explore his interests or you can continue being right about his attitude. Which approach looks like it might have more promise?”

Honestly, I don’t know how this turned out since that was the last time I saw that particular manager. Based on the conversation I’d say she stuck with her agenda, at least a little while longer.

This engagement stuff is tricky business; if you are serious you need to face the need to get up close and personal with the people who report to you. Are you up to the challenge?

When faced with the need to redirect an employee’s focus of engagement, ask yourself if you are willing to discover what’s in it for them. If nothing comes immediately to mind you may want to hold off until you can get interested in them.

Note: A previous version of this post appeared in the BBJ in 2010.

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