My Global Career: Engage Workers By Letting Them Think

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“If you see a fork in the road, take it,” and “You can observe a lot by watching” are some of the many one-line quips of baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.  Yogi’s comments are both fun and a blinding flash of the obvious that often draw us back to simple truths.  My favorite is “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

One blinding flash of the obvious that is often missed, and that could be extremely pertinent in the age of employee engagement, is “Engagement requires thinking.”  In my experience, many employee engagement approaches are still one-way communication efforts on steroids that fail to tap into the ability of employees to think and act differently.  At a time when study after study confirms that only about 20% of employees are engaged in their current work, it’s hard not to conclude that something’s not working!  Maybe “having a best friend at work” isn’t the determining factor.  Why are so many employees simply checked out at the place where they spend 40% of their waking lives…at work?

Let’s start with a key premise that’s often missed in engagement efforts – that we want to solve problems ourselves.  From Sudoku to mystery novels to crosswords, we all love the challenge of solving a puzzle.  Obviously, we could just turn to the back of the book and get the answer or read the final page.  But what’s engaging about that?  We want the intellectual and emotional experience of finding a sense of achievement in our own thinking.  When people get a chance to solve their own puzzles, they own the result.  And owners think, act, and engage differently from non-owners.  They’re vested, they’re passionate, they won’t take no for an answer, and they’re willing to put in more effort than is required.I once talked to an employee at a large Canadian bank just after she was given her first opportunity in 15 years to actively think about her business.  In an “official” group discussion, she was asked to compare and contrast major marketplace trends and consider competitive threats, industry consolidation, and consumer expectations.  The experience was a real eye-opener for her – and for her leaders.

She told me, “You know, learning and engagement require thinking.  In the past, people have tried to persuade me to do things differently in order to improve the business.  But they never asked me to think about the business.  This is the first time I’ve ever learned anything here – the first time I have really been engaged in solving our problems.  Now that I’ve had a chance to actually think about our business, I’m beginning to change my ideas about how it works and my role in it.”

And it’s not just intellectual – engagement is emotional.  You can’t possibly be engaged if someone else is trying to draw your conclusions for you.  You need the “emotional aha.”  You need to feel like you’re totally in the game by really feeling what the business needs, figuring out how you can help, and realizing why you make a difference.  The woman at the bank felt valued because her company offered her a challenge instead of spoon-feeding her a solution.  That showed her that her leaders believed that she had the ability to think.  And this energized her and created a sense of belonging, pride, ownership, and desire to go the extra mile.

Most organizations attempt to execute their strategies by doing all the thinking for their people – and then trying to persuade them to dedicate their heads, hearts, and hands to bring the strategies to life.  Our 20% engagement statistic should loudly tell us that this doesn’t work!

So to be engaged means that you know what you need to do as well as why you’re doing it.  But if you’re a leader at any level in your organization, how do you get people there?  Abraham Maslow said, “The great tragedy of the human race is the history of people selling themselves short.”

To apply this to business engagement, I’d say, “The great tragedy of the engagement movement is the history of leaders selling their people short.”  By telling employees what the answers are – solving the business puzzles – we are giving them only the answer key and depriving people of the chance to think about truly engaging in the business differently.

Jim Haudan is the CEO and founder of Root Learning.  His new book, The Art of Engagement (McGraw Hill, August 2008), explains how organizations can close the gap between their aspirations and actual, tangible results.

Posted via web from AndyWergedal