Engagement is a word much used in corporate life, and, unfortunately, often associated with company surveys inevitably used to keep managers in line.
This is too bad, because ‘engagement’ is the best word for what needs to happen between people in order for leadership – or customer service, or teamwork, or performance management, or sales, or all the other human things – to be effective, to work.
Leadership cannot happen in a vacuum … in fact, it can only happen in a relationship – a relationship between a leader and followers at any given moment.
So, I’d like to propose that ‘engagement’ is best thought of as an honest, open, real-time connection and exchange of ideas, opinions and feelings.
This will best happen when people meet and share their views and experiences, face-to-face, listen attentively to each other, let each other know whether they’ve really heard each other, and respond honestly.
This is the best basis for productive engagement at work. People need to have the skills, good intentions, and courage to do this.
There is no better basis for worthwhile relationships at work.
To have this capacity, people in organisations ideally need to have a range of relevant abilities:-
Over 30 years of consulting, the best leaders I’ve seen in action are those who welcome engagement. When colleagues or staff raise questions, they physically turn towards them and ask for others’ comments and questions. They won’t necessarily agree with others, but they will hear them and reply honestly, personally and in plain language. When they do this, others recognise their bona fides.
When senior managers use corporate speak, or talk about the company’s ‘culture, values and imperatives’, listeners turn off.
They will openly share their beliefs, experiences and opinions. They will also welcome an exploration together, especially when there is a difference of opinion.
One of the best examples of engagement I’ve seen occurred after a long and intensive middle management leadership program. The CEO, Simon, who met with the group after the program, relaxed after the dinner in the bar with the participants. One of them, Keith, a man in his early 40’s, called out, “Hey Simon, I’ve got a question for you.” Simon turned straight towards him and in front of the group said “Yes Keith, what is it?”. Keith said, “You’ve been in the job 9 months now. I want to know if you’re here for the long haul or are you just going to take your money and run?” (One way or another, this was probably a question in the minds of many staff). The group froze. Simon said, “Good question, Keith. In all honesty, as long as the Board lets me do my job, I’ll stay. But if that changes, I’ll leave.” There was no gainsaying his answer. “Fair enough,” said Keith. And the group relaxed.
In hindsight, I think Simon was a natural leader. It didn’t hurt that he’d left school at 15 to get a job, and had only done his degree years later. But what counted was that he welcomed any engagement with his colleagues, and he was always direct. He trusted his executive team too, and was focussed on how he could best support them in their work.
Unusually, he always had time to talk with anyone in the business who needed to talk.
Notably, anyone at any level in the company who had met him, executive team or other, would subsequently say that they would willingly work for him again, any time, any place.
Leadership centres on engagement – not the kind measured in surveys, but that which happens when two people really meet each other. Honest talk and important stories are always in the mix.
About David Green
David has been developing leaders for over 30 years and a good chunk of that time he has used narrative techniques. He specialises in running leadership programs that concentrate on team dynamics, building trust and learning how to say what you mean.
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