Disappointed with Employee’s Engagement: Maybe They are Just Not That into You!

When a wife yells at her husband, who has his eyes glued to his desktop screen, “You are not listening to me!” she is dead on, he’s not. But does that mean he’s not engaged?

Actually, he is very engaged, with what is in front of him on the screen. People are always engaged, it just may not be with what we consider to be important and that is a critical element that managers may be missing.

As managers, what we often don’t seem to get is that our role is not so much to create engagement, as it is to direct it. If this sounds counter to what you have been reading, told or imagined yourself I offer no apologies but I do ask that you seriously consider what I am proposing.

Recently, a manager in a class I was delivering asked what she could do about the attitude of one of the younger workers reporting to her, he just didn’t seem as committed to his work as she would have liked. I asked about the quality of his work, she indicated that it was OK but just OK.

‘OK but just OK’ is an indication that the young employee is sufficiently engaged to comply with what is expected of him. I asked the manager if just OK was a problem, her response was telling. “Yes, I’d like to see more enthusiasm from him.” All right, now we were getting somewhere, the manager was confused. I mentioned to her that what she wanted was a personal preference not a legitimate requirement of the job. She didn’t seem to like this very much so we continued. I asked her if there was anything he did seem committed to and she responded sharply, “Well, fantasy football!” So I proceeded to ask whether she had ever looked into what he found so engaging about fantasy football? I could tell by the look on her face that she was shocked and maybe even offended by my question and her response matched her facial expression, “Why should I have to do that?”

I am a very pragmatic guy, you tell me you have a problem I begin looking for a solution, I don’t worry about who is right or wrong or what should be happening. Actually, I think this may be most manager’s problem with engagement, they approach it like a problem to be solved rather than an asset and a resource to be leveraged and understood.

My response to the manager rocked her back even further. “Look” I said, “You brought up the issue, you are apparently the one with the problem. I am looking at the situation and seeing whether we can uncover a way to get in communication with this young guy and leverage what he is fully engaged with since telling him he needs to be more committed does not seem to be getting the job done. Would you agree with that?” She then nodded her head yes. “So now”, I said, “You have an option available that wasn’t there before, you can give up your agenda and explore his interests or you can continue being right about his attitude. Which approach looks like it might have more promise?”

Honestly I don’t know how this turned out since that was the last time I saw that particular manager. Based on the conversation I’d say she stuck with her agenda, at least a little while longer.

This engagement stuff is nasty business; if you are serious you need to face the reality of getting up close and personal with the people who report to you. Are you up to the challenge? Are you ready for the level of vulnerability required?

  • When faced with the need/desire to redirect an employee’s focus of engagement ask yourself if you are willing to discover what’s in it for them? If nothing comes immediately to mind you may want to hold off until you can get interested in them



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