We need to look at engagement

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Written by Caroline Walmsley on 25 May 2016

What's the best way to hide something?

According to Douglas Adams, it's hard to beat something called a Someone Else's Problem field, or SEP. Somewhere between an engineering miracle and a simple symptom of perennial human laziness, the SEP is the most effective stealth technology ever developed:

'Something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem.....The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.' – Life, the universe and everything

If you've wondered why no-one seems to be getting to the bottom of the employee engagement issue in your workplace, it's probably because this enormous challenge is hiding in plain sight, cloaked by an SEP, right there  in the middle of the office.

Engagement is the number one, key challenge clients and partners mention to me when we talk. They want to know how to find out about it, and how we can help them fix it. They know that they have problems with retention, with productivity, with innovation, and they know engagement lies at the heart of all of them.

And they come looking to me for the solution to the problem.

A lot of the time, the question they really want to ask me is about ownership: They want to get it out of the way, and ask to whom in their organisation they should be delegating responsibility for improving engagement. And I tend not to have an easy answer for that one.

Farming the issue out to someone else, whether it's the HR department, or L&D, or individual team leaders, or juniors expected to somehow pull the entire organisation up by the bootstraps through sheer force of will, is a sure-fire way to make the SEP even stronger.

It permanently removes engagement from the sight of managers and leadership, and although that would surely feel great for a while – sweet relief! It's not much help to anyone in the long run.

So when they ask me who should own the engagement issue, what do I tell them?

No one.

There are in fact two ways of defeating a Someone Else's Problem field.  As we saw above, there's looking at it from the corner of your eye which, I'm sorry to say, is less than 100 per cent effective, especially for chronic problems that require a steady, considered gaze to understand.

The much more reliable way is to make it everybody’s problem. That way, it can’t hide from anyone.

This organisation-wide shift in perspective involves everyone, but usually flows or is solidly supported from the top, from the leaders. Recent studies show that organisations whose leadership is itself engaged with the issue are three times more likely to have a successful programme with a measurable, positive impact on engagement.

However, note the use of the word flow – this doesn’t mean that it's something which the leadership can directly impose throughout the business, through either carrot- or stick-based imperatives and incentives.

In any organisation, engagement is always ultimately about the emotional subjectivity of the people on the ground, and the level of thought, effort and inspiration they can bring to the task at hand.

It's about the way they feel. It's connected to their hopes, beliefs and fears. It's different for everyone, and it's always going to fluctuate – from project-to-project, from day-to-day, and from person-to-person.

Leadership's role is to help move the organisation to a point where the time between fluctuations is wide, and the peaks and troughs are shallow. It's an incremental process of improvement in which crude tools like sticks and carrots don’t have much place at all.

If there is one big fix for the engagement issue then it lies in the next-generation technologies emerging from within the L&D space – the tools and platforms that can compete in real terms with the other distractions vying for peoples' attention both in, and outside the workplace.

They adapt and align themselves to the personal needs and preferences of users at the individual level, engagement isn't a problem for Snapchat or WhatsApp – and nor should it be for today's smart organisations.

Whatever tools or cultural strategies you adopt, if you’re serious about tackling the problem, senior level buy-in is a must, because when it comes to engagement, leadership always trumps ownership.

About the author 

Caroline Walmsley is the MD of Brightwave. To find out more visit  www.brightwavegroup.com.