Are you waiting for your manager to engage you? If you were a business would you wait for customers to come to you or would you seek them out? 

Top-down approaches to engagement expect you to wait for your manager to engage you, a bit like being an animal in a zoo just waiting to be fed.

Not many organizations will encourage you to think like an independent business person, but entrepreneurs are much more engaged than employees.  Yes, they get to keep their own profits too, but it’s more than money. They are highly motivated because they feel in control of their own agendas and careers. 

By contrast, with an employee mindset, you can only take direction from your boss, work hard and hope to be noticed. This may not be as passive as being an animal in a zoo but there is a limit to how engaged you will ever feel if you need your boss to engage you.

Engagement versus self-engagement

Employee engagement has a very limited focus on motivating employees to work hard in their jobs. It’s up to the organization or its managers to do the engaging. 

Self-engagement, with its independent contractor slant, is about you involving yourself and shaping your own destiny, just as you would do if you really were self-employed and building your own business.

With a self-engagement approach, you proactively search for opportunities to contribute more. You’re always on the lookout for new ways to get involved in emerging trends and problem areas. You network and ask loads of questions in your search for new ways of contributing, looking for “new business” for yourself.

Perhaps you have had experience of a job morphing into something different over time as new responsibilities are added and old ones are dropped. Self-engagement simply means that you drive this role-morphing process yourself.

Recall John F. Kennedy’s famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what can you do for your country.” You might reply: “Why should I think about what I can do for the organization? I’m in it for myself” Well, your organization is your customer and helping customers succeed is the only way your business can be successful.

How to engage yourself

OK, so how do you do it?

The first step is to start thinking like a self-employed contractor not a conventional employee. If your culture isn’t supportive, you’ll have to rely solely on your own wits.

With an employee mindset, you might feel that you had a good day or week when you didn’t see your boss. Now you need to start treating your boss and other managers as your customers.

You should have a short term and a long-term objective. In the short term, your goal should be to shape your job so that you are doing the kinds of work you most enjoy and finding ways to contribute more. Longer term, your goal could be to shift your role in a new direction, taking on greater responsibilities.

Your feeling of engagement will develop as you gain confidence in your ability to shape your role. Frustration with a lack of control over career progress is a major reason why employees leave. They may complain about other things but there is an underlying resentment of feeling powerless to influence their own success. As soon as you start engaging yourself, this frustration should evaporate and you should feel in charge.

Start by looking for interesting projects that you can sign up to. Find out what key players are doing, those who could become customers and could potentially offer you a new role at some future point. 

To engage yourself, ask questions of internal customers every chance you get in order to diagnose their needs and unearth opportunities for you to contribute more. Here are some sample questions to ask:

•    What are you working on at the moment?
•    What new trends (or initiatives) are you focusing on?
•    What issues are keeping you awake at nights these days?
•    How is your ABC initiative going? What’s going well and not so well?

When you get some initial answers, drill down with further questions such as:

•    What sorts of obstacles are you up against?
•    What options do you see for addressing those issues?
•    Why is the potential impact of this project on the business?
•    What sort of input/support would you value from others?

If some managers are suspicious of your motives, explain that you are simply interested in what’s going on in the business beyond your own role or that you want to learn more about what the organization is doing. 

Your aim is to sell yourself to your customers, but this doesn’t have to mean talking about how great you are. Just showing interest in what other people are doing goes a long way toward selling yourself. Also, your questions alone, without any suggestions from you, could generate some fresh thinking about a problem that might help a customer move forward.

Tone of voice is important too. If you sound like a police interrogator, you won’t get very far. You need to adopt a respectful manner that suggests an eagerness to learn from the experience of key players. So, you might ask a question like: “In your experience, what is the best way to handle issues like that?” This sounds like you are asking for advice and people are flattered by that, so again you are subtly selling yourself.

You might object that the managers you need to get closer to are too busy. But that’s true for self-employed consultants as well. They also find it very hard to get clients to spare any time to see them. So, you need to think creatively. Try an email question or see if you can get to people who have some influence with your key prospect. 

Ask around to learn what issues or initiatives your main prospective customers are working on. Learn all you can about their pet projects and then ask questions about how they are going. It’s important to focus on a manageable number of key players, not likely more than a half dozen at any one time and dropping those that aren’t receptive.

Making an immediate impact

Your boss is your number one customer at the moment. You can engage yourself more fully in your current role by taking any initiative you can think of to improve the way your function operates. You don’t need to come up with all the ideas yourself, however. Asking questions of your colleagues and your boss can generate novel improvement ideas. 

The key is to think of your job as your business and continually ask yourself how you can manage your business more effectively. Make your boss understand that you see him or her as your customer. To best meet your boss’s needs, you should regularly ask questions to ensure that you are focusing the majority of your time and effort on the right priorities. 

Your goal is to make sure you are investing the bulk of your time and talent in those activities that add the most value in your boss’s eyes. Most employees simply assume they know what those activities are but your boss’s priorities change and you need to keep abreast of them, just as you would do as an external contractor with real customers.

It’s a good idea to get your boss (your customer) to agree to regular update meetings where you run through what’s gone well and what priorities you are currently emphasizing. Such meetings are a selling opportunity. By reviewing what has been going well (not just where the problems are) you are letting your customer know how much you have done for him or her. Also, by discussing current priorities, you can realign them if necessary and get your customer’s buy-in to your current focus.

Taking more initiative along these lines is a better way to boost self-respect and pride than simply doing your job well. If you regard your job as your business and engage yourself in it, you should look forward to coming to work more than you do now, feel more engaged and be more motivated to contribute in line with your full potential.