What is the sound of engagement? A manager needs to know

By Mike Cook

For the Bellingham Business Journal

Probably the most common mistake I watch managers make daily is addressing their reports as though the reports are in the same frame of mind as they are. Maybe they are and you got lucky. But maybe not, and you are talking to yourself. Not knowing is a risky proposition. Just because one or more of your reports is nodding their head doesn’t mean anything—except that they’re nodding their head!

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. At any point in time and on no particular schedule your employees can be in any one of countless frames of mind, each of which contributes to their level of engagement. These frames of mind are variable:

 – 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 reference “frames of mind?” The place we look 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.) We are always giving voice to our frame of mind if others would just listen and watch.

Being fully engaged 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 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.

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 life when addressing your team or another co-worker while engaged in getting something done.

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, “Okey Dokes” and even “you got it boss” means that something is going to happen and you can count on it.

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?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.

Related Stories