Too many managers want their employees to be self-sufficient with minimal attention to keep them going. No wonder so many employees are disengaged.
Clear evidence that managers don't want to actively engage employees is the way employee engagement is defined. It's about how motivated employees are to do THEIR OWN JOBS.
A deeper level of engagement is achieved when employees become interested in the manager's work, their department's or the wellbeing of the organization as a whole.
Focusing engagement only on the employee's job fails to foster deep commitment to (or ownership for) the broader organization. As a result, many employees may well be engaged in their jobs but feel that they could just as easily achieve the same level of engagement elsewhere.
Steps to Engage Employees
- Regularly update employees on your own evolving priorities, vision and plans, those of your department and the broader organization.
- Get employees deeply involved in issues and challenges faced by you, the department and the organization.
- Change your mindset from answer provider to catalyst.
- Do more asking than telling and selling
How to Be a Catalyst
Answer givers like to generate and promote their own solutions. Doing so successfully helps them maximize their sense of ownership over, and commitment to, their own ideas. The huge cost, however, is that everyone not involved in generating your solutions feels left out and disengaged, mere passengers on YOUR bus.
Managers who like to generate their own solutions ask factual questions to gather data to fuel their own decision making. Catalysts ask for opinions and suggestions instead.
The most engaging question to ask employees is: What do you think?" There are a million variations on this question. Here are a few:
- What do you see as the main issue here?
- What do you see as possible solutions?
- What is your preferred solution?
- What are the pros and cons of your solution?
- What obstacles do you see in the way of implementing it?
- Etc. Etc.
Engaging questions can be asked at different levels:
- About problems employees bring to the manager
- The manager's own challenges
- Departmental issues
- Organizational strategies
While not all employees want to raise their line of sight above their own jobs, seeking their opinions might just generate more interest and engagement than you'd expect. Even if people aren't initially interested in a subject, being asked for their suggestions can often generate interest and make them feel valued.
Other Tips for Being More Engaging
In addition to asking what employees think, it's critical to create an environment where employees feel confident enough to say what they think, to propose and defend solutions that might make you feel a bit uncomfortable. Here are the key steps to take:
- Avoid being defensive or critical when proposed solutions strike you as inappropriate. Instead, ask further questions to help deepen your understanding of their ideas and, ideally, stimulate employees to think a little more deeply about the issue at hand.
- Regularly reinforce the message that you are shifting your role from authoritative answer giver to that of an engaging, facilitative catalyst.
- Sell your change of mindset by stressing your objective to maximize employee potential. With knowledge workers, this means stimulating them to do more thinking. And what better way to develop them and build their confidence than to ask them what they think?
- Practice the famous Steve Jobs mantra "Think Different" by encouraging employees to come up with any idea for new products or improved processes no matter how off the wall they seem.
- Regularly thank and praise employees for having the courage to propose potentially unpopular ideas.
- Ask questions in a supportive manner, not like a police interrogator, and listen actively by supportively probing for elaboration and clarification.
Barriers to Being Engaging
Rampant individualism, especially in Anglo-Saxon cultures, is a huge barrier in the way of a more engaging management style. Managers pride themselves on their "smarts" – their ability to come up with brilliant solutions. Politicians campaign for election by claiming to have better solutions to pressing problems than their competitors. Executives too often have the same "I have the answers" mindset.
An executive who was coached to be more engaging by drawing solutions out of his team members said he could see the point but that doing so wouldn't feel like doing real work. "Real work" for many executives means DOING things. Maybe they delegate a lot but they reserve most of the important MENTAL work for themselves.
Scoring goals is what gets most highly rewarded in organizations, just as it does in sports where the best goal scorers earn the most money. Facilitation, drawing solutions out of others, is just not high profile enough or as much fun.
Executives want to operate as if they were managing partners in a professional services firm, like a law firm. Managing partners want their lawyers to be self-sufficient so they can devote most of their time to their own casework, rather than actually managing, coaching and developing people.
However, unless a more engaging management style is actively encouraged and rewarded, starting at the top, employee engagement and innovation – creative mental work, will continue to remain well below its potential.
In Conclusion, you can start practicing a more engaging style immediately, bearing in mind that you need to manage expectations up and down. This is a leadership opportunity for you, however, to initiate and promote a culture change in order to transform your organizational culture into a more engaging one.