What is the Sound of Engagement? A Manager Needs to Know | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

If you are not a manager just read this with any situation in mind where you are counting on the collaboration of others.

Probably the most common mistake I watch managers make daily in the workplace is addressing their employees as though they are both fully engaged and ready to go. Just because you have one of your employees nodding their head doesn’t mean anything except they are nodding their head!

A worse mistake of course is not being aware that an employee’s state of engagement even matters!

You may have never thought about it but as a manager 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
  • and, and, and …or, or, or…life will not leave us alone.

So, what do I mean when I refer to “frames of mind?” Frame – the place we look at the world from – 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.”) We are always giving “voice” to our frame of mind if others would just listen and watch.


Engaged is a condition of being, and there are both ultimate and interim conditions of being engaged to consider.

  • Ultimate engagement arises from the choice to honor your commitments.
  • Interim engagement is subject to the slings and arrows of everyday life and is 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 after 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.

What is this “Voice” thing?

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, its probably nothing,” followed by no action until asked again.

I hope that you can translate these personal examples into your own when addressing your team or another co-worker while setting the stage to get something done.

If you don’t check in with people you run the risk of talking to employees and assuming that head nods, Okey-dokes and even “You got it boss” means that something is going to happen and you can count on it. Maybe you’ve just been talking to yourself!

So, do you know your employees as well as my wife knows me?

  • 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. 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.


Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. 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 reader’s group at Village Books.

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