There is tremendous pressure on organisations these days to have engaged staff and good engagement scores. I’ve sat through a number of sessions on the topic and seen some leaders having conversations with their teams about engagement and I understand the frustration it can cause them.
I have a simple mantra that I like to keep in mind and that is ‘Engaged teams aren’t necessarily high performing, but high performing teams will be engaged’, so I thought I would explore that a little here and share some observations.
There is a tendency to think that engagement can equate to happiness and that if people are happy at work that they are engaged. For some, being happy in their work means the boss leaves them alone. For others, it means no pressure to meet deadlines and then there are those that equate engagement with being allowed to do what they want (and that’s not empowerment either).
This can lead managers to ask their people what would help them be more engaged. The answer is often ‘more social time together’. Now I believe that a team that celebrates together performs together but ‘having the odd beer’ for no real reason is a very low bar when it comes to a performing team. If this is the response you get then it’s time to raise expectations a little. My view is that a truly engaged team socialises to celebrate success and are clear what level of success justifies celebration.
In many surveys ‘ambivalent’ engagement is an issue. ‘People should be much more engaged than this’ is the cry. I’ve seen managers run around trying to find ways of engaging ambivalent floor sweepers who say ‘Why are they bothered about my lack of career opportunities when I just want a secure wage?’
So the problem becomes the score you get instead of the reality of what the score means in the context of that business. I’ve also seen managers put a lot of effort into engaging their people and it makes no difference to the score and it becomes their problem. But what if the individual isn’t interested in being ‘engaged’? What if they are just the kind of person that would never score more than 3 on a survey even if their life depended on it?Sometimes you need to go back to your people and say ‘I did all this and yet you scored it that way. What is the real problem here?’ and have a crucial conversation. This is often avoided because ‘it makes people unhappy and unhappy people won’t score well in engagement’. But I go back to my mantra and say that a high performing team would have those conversations honestly and with respect.
Going back to my sweeper example, I‘ve seen management teams run around and create engagement plans for the business on the back of their analysis of the results. But ask yourself ‘Do I think the same way as my people?’, ‘Can I assume that I know what they were thinking?’. The assumption that you know is a problem for many leaders and the sooner you realise that you don’t know, the better a leader you will be. Because as soon as you recognise that you might not know, you go and ask. When it comes to engagement, sitting with a team and saying ‘This was scored low and I’d like to understand it, so can you please share your views’ may reveal a lot. If the answer turns out to be ‘it’s not that bad really’ then it’s back to the crucial conversation and the question ‘So why did you score it that way?’
Maybe the message is ‘sometimes engagement requires you to engage with your team about engagement!’