The so-called problem of engagement

Some thoughts about participation and engagement: what if asking how to get employees engaged is the wrong question?
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

My new pal Jake has signed up as a BzzAgent to see what it’s all about – despite his considerable scepticism.

But this post is not about the ethics of BzzAgent. Let’s put that (those?) to one side and notice that something rather interesting is happening here. I think it’s related in some way to what I said in my Cloudmark post yesterday. We sometimes participate in things we don’t necessarily “believe in”; we join despite, not because of the stated benefits. We may offer some interesting rationalisation for our choice, but that might just be a story we tell ourselves to preserve the comforting fantasy of a rational world.

This all feeds my sense that the desire for participation is natural, it’s in our bones. All those consultants who say you need to “install belief changes” to get people to do things may be barking up entirely the wrong tree. (Read that link and you can see why I largely repent my training in NLP).

I find myself thinking about how organisations tend to say they have problems with employee engagement. Goodness knows there are plenty of surveys to back them up on this.

But I wonder if we could look at it this way: there is no problem about engagement. When I do Improv training, it’s hilarious how passionately folks engage in apparently pointless games. Occasionally, some of the most active players then sit down afterwards and demand tetchily to know what the point was; I’m inclined to ask them to tell me – they were the ones who seemed most motivated.

The real problem here may not be engagement, but what people are engaged in – which doesn’t conform to the corporate ideal. Now that’s a different and more interesting topic for a conversation. That might lead us to a very engaging chat about what it is that folks aren’t talking about. A year ago, I quoted Chris Corrigan on this point:

When I am working with organizations who complain that they have communication problems, I always ask about gossip. I ask how long it takes for a juicy rumour to propagate through the organization. People usually respond with some lightning fast time.

I always point out that this means that there is no communication problem, the problem is that people are just not passionate enough about issues that are “communication problems.” This always leads into nice discussions about working with more passion, rather than devising some useless set of easily broken communication commitments.

I’m probably always only one statement or question away from a very engaging conversation. But will I take the risk to say/ask it? (And note that it’s me that needs to change – not the other person).

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