The Problem: you want your staff to go the extra mile. You want your team to take some risks. You want your employees to ‘get the big picture’ and do what it takes to make it happen. You want the wheels to stay on the bus even when you aren’t there.
What you want is engagement. But no one’s buying. If you want something done you have to spell it out in detail, or just give up and get to that ugly “I’ll just do it myself” place of the defeated manager. You feel like every time you turn your back, the wheels come off the bus again. You’ve got zero engagement.
Engagement was defined by John Gibbons (writing for the Conference Board) as “a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work”. Notice the line from emotional connection to greater discretionary effort.
Discretionary effort is the phrase that describes what every employer wants: for the employee to figure out what is needed for success in the bigger picture, and to do whatever is needed to get there – without anyone standing over their shoulder… Stuff just gets done.
So how do you get your team to this place? What do we require to become fully engaged? In my experience, three things are needed: clarity, hope, and commitment.
In his book The One Thing You Need to Know… Marcus Buckingham writes that the one thing you need to know about great leadership is “Discover what is universal, and capitalize on it.” Buckingham tells us that what is universally required of leadership is clarity. Specifically, an optimistic clarity about the future.
We’ll work our hearts out for you (that’s discretionary engagement) if you can make us see with crystal clarity the great future we are all headed for.
Leadership is the work of leaders. That means get out front and lead. You must see what others cannot yet see. You must see the future with an optimistic clarity that inspires others to follow. Leadership does not just require clarity; leadership is clarity.
If you can’t see the future more clearly and more optimistically than the rest of us, what makes you a leader?
If there is clarity about the future, then the next link in the chain is possible: hope.
Hope, as I have defined it, has two components: an optimistic vision of the future, and the belief that we have what it takes to get there. As a leader your clarity of vision creates the precondition for that kind of hope. We must see where we are going, and we must believe it is a place worth getting to, before we decide to invest our blood, sweat, and tears to get there! The success of every great religious leader, every reformer, every leader of any expedition across any ocean or continent has been dependent on their clarity of just how much greener that grass over there is.
When we can see that where we are headed is better than where we are now, clarity becomes hope.
Great managers play a critical role in inspiring hopefulness in teams. With their defining work in understanding the strengths of every employee (Buckingham again), great managers help us understand exactly what our role is, and leverage our strengths in achieving the goals of the organization. Great managers support our contribution by constantly encouraging further growth where they know we are strong, and by giving us opportunities to use those strengths for the greater good.
Great managers act as match-makers between our strengths and the jobs that need to get done. The result, when all is right, is that powerful feeling of a team that is firing on all cylinders, and every member is clear about their role in the success of the overall project. And like so much in life, success builds more success: feeling like we are successful contributors to the greater good, and being part of a successful initiative, builds the confidence and hopefulness that leads to more success.
When clarity and true hopefulness exist in an organization, the stage is set for the third component of total engagement: commitment.
When our leaders give us clarity and hope about our futures and the future of the organization, the stage is set for us to make a commitment. Starting on a journey of change and growth requires clarity and hope. But there is no journey at all without commitment. Commitment is the action piece. It’s time to start walking. Commitment is, to paraphrase Nike Corp., ‘just doing it’.
If organizational change sometimes feels like going over a cliff, then clarity is envisioning just how we will make the tricky descent, and hope is the confidence we will make it to the bottom in one piece. Commitment is taking the first step over the edge. Commitment is the point at which there is no turning back.
If clarity is the domain of leadership, and engendering hopefulness the domain of great managers, commitment is the responsibility of the whole team. Literally, if clarity and hopefulness are the call, commitment is the response. We are all going over the edge together, and my commitment as a team member is that I will take that first step with everyone else, and every required step after it, until we reach our goal.
Now we have engagement.
So you want complete engagement? Give us complete clarity. Don’t complain that you can’t get anyone involved/engaged/committed in your project, your vision, if you can’t help us see it. Do your job as a leader, or we will wander off somewhere else. Require that our managers provide the kind of intelligent feedback and empowerment that strengthens our confidence in ourselves and in the organization we work for, or we will falter and lose our commitment.
Do you want your employees to tap into that mysterious ‘discretionary effort’ that means the wheels stay on the bus even when you are out of the building? Then make sure that you have done your part to be clear, and to connect our strengths with the task at hand. If you’ve really done your part, then you’ll get passionate engagement and everyone will take that first step towards extraordinary growth and change together, and then keep on walking!