Employee Engagement: Rifle, Mat, Gearshift, Ring (Mike Klein)

Learning from Mike Klein.

Mike Klein is an original think around employee engagement. He joined the Employee Engagement Network recently and I asked him about his nonlinear view of employee engagement and employee engagement seen as a moral virtue. He wrote a comment on my network page that really got me thinking:

Engagement is non-linear: The short answer to my non-linear view of engagement: I think the idea of the path between employee hostility and helpfulness as a straight line called “engagement” is total rubbish. Rather, I see “engagement” as a willingness to connect through some sort of relationship, which can either be hostile or helpful, passive or active, possessive or bereft of long-term commitment, and solitary or collective.

As for my background–while I have more than 10 years of internal communication experience, mainly in Europe, I managed political campaigns in the US for 10 years as well, where I saw other patterns and models of engagement emerge around candidates and issues. That background gives me some perspective around the whole “engagement as moral virtue” piece–for it is impossible for anyone actively in a relationship to be disengaged, whether they are hostile, helpful or hopeless. Ultimately, I think this issue has been horribly mispositioned in the communications and management press, and that professionals need access to new models and vocabularies that don’t treat engagement solely as an employee issue, and solely as a matter of right and wrong.

This whetted my appetite to learn more from Mike about employee engagement or engagement and I received his approval to reprint the blog post below. I have made a few slight changes to make it easier to follow but the post is directly from Mike.  This is not a short blog read but I believe your will gain much if you focus on the engaging metaphors that Mike presents.

An Alternative View of Engagement: Rifle, Mat, Gearshift, Ring

(Original article was published here)

Part of the problem with the whole discussion of “Engagement” is the lack of a consistent definition and approach. But there are some common assumptions inherent in much of what’s being said about “Engagement” including:

  • Engagement is about improving morale, commitment, and employee productivity
  • Engagement is linear, starting at a point of “zero” or “disengaged”, and moving progressively upward
  • Engagement is about employees, period.
  • Engagement is the state that all companies should pursue for all employees. Companies that reject this view are bad, wrong and unenlightened.
  • Engagement can be successfully delivered hierarchically through top-down-one-size-fits-all approaches, and that’s the only fair way to do it because it’s wrong to treat employees differently.

Dueling Definitions

The above approach to “Engagement” is consistent with a number of popular definitions. The best example is the definition offered by the “Corporate Leadership Council” as: “the extent to which an associate commits to something or someone in their organization.”

But Webster’s offers a much more robust definition than do the fine folks at the Corporate Leadership Council:

  • to pledge oneself : PROMISE  : GUARANTEE
  • to begin and carry on an enterprise or activity b : to take part : PARTICIPATE c : to give attention to something : DEAL
  • to enter into conflict or battle
  • to come together and interlock (as of machinery parts) : be or become in gear

Building from Webster’s definition, an alternative view of engagement falls out: There is no such thing as “disengagement” as long as an individual has any contact with an organization. Engagement is neither a virtue nor a vice—merely a characterization of the nature and intensity of one’s relationship with an organization

Four distinct forms of engagement emerge:

  • The engagement of the “rifle”—battle: active opposition
  • The engagement of the “mat”—wrestling: active disagreement, but within a productive context
  • The engagement of the “gearshift”-mechanical: productivity without resistance
  • The engagement of the “ring”-mutual, heartfelt, emotional commitment

The Engagement of the Rifle

Current models of “Engagement” may consider active hostility, opposition or sabotage indicative of “disengaged” employees (or for that matter, “disengaged” managers or corporate alumni). But being willing to behave disruptively or attempt to damage the organization or its reputation cannot by any rational definition be seen as “disengagement”. These people are highly engaged. They care about the organization, and they are determined to pay it back for any real or imagined slights.

The implications of having a section of staff reflecting an “engagement of the rifle” can be profound—they can undermine the enthusiasm of fellow staff members, they can make claims about product and service quality on internet bulletin boards—and, in company towns, can spread rumors that can undermine the stability of the company-community relationship. Even those employees who may seem “apathetic” may go home and moan to their spouses, who then do the rumor-spreading for them.

What’s important about looking at the “engagement of the rifle” is not simply that people so engaged are aggressive and hostile. Instead, it demonstrates a level and intensity of engagement that can potentially be channeled and harnessed in a more appropriate direction. For many organizations—finding a way to identify, address, and channel “rifle-engagement” more productively may be the first kind of engagement effort they need.

The Engagement of the Mat

Some may see a wrestling match as a kind of battle akin to that fought with rifles. But there are two major differences—wrestling is physically intense but not lethal, and wrestling is a form of physical engagement that takes place within the context of established boundaries and rules.

Disagreements within organizations can bring friction, discord and disruption to boardrooms, conference rooms, offices and laboratories. But many of those disagreements yield or prompt the innovations, realizations and realignments that make organizations more responsive to customers, more efficient to operate, and more honest places in which to work. Is a manager who is upset about the outcome of a decision unhappy? Sure. But is an unhappy manager who is forming a coalition to seek the reevaluation of an adverse decision “disengaged”? Absolutely not! She is deeply engaged—and she and her coalition are taking their collective engagement to the mat.

Many organizations want their people to be engaged on the mat. They are seeking new opportunities, to achieve ambitious targets with fewer resources, and desperately require internal challenge, and often bring in external support for framing those challenges. Does anyone pay Booz Allen or Accenture to come into an organization and sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy?” For some organizations, the engagement approach they may first need involves creating, licensing and incentivizing staff to challenge the way they work and the way the organization meets challenges.

The Engagement of the Gearshift

For many people, work is about going to the plant or the office, doing everything that comes across the desk in a way that meets with their supervisor’s consent, and going home and getting on with the rest of their lives. Some may complain that this is a “disengaged” way to work, but examined closely, it’s a mechanical form of engagement—the person comes into the process, does his/bit, and exits the process at the end of the day.

This kind of engagement and the organizations that foster it are heavily criticized by those who see “Engagement” as a kind of moral imperative that must be brought by force to all organizations.

But the “engagement of the gearshift” persists for a number of reasons which are hardly immoral on their face. Some employees do not want jobs or positions that interfere with their non-work lives—they want to go to work, do their jobs, and go home, and have the mind space to worry about their children, churches, crafts or communities.

To be fair, the “engagement of the gearshift” is something that has been the design of companies, and it has manifested itself in many ways. Companies close factories in the West and outsource to contract manufacturers in China. They close call centers in Manchester and replace them with call centers in Mumbai. They hire contractors and consultants to perform short term assignments. With continuing pressure on profits and resources, companies—particularly those who compete on price–will relentlessly continue to pursue the mechanical and flexible form of engagement that the “gearshift” offers.

This is not to say that the “engagement of the gearshift” must be purely one way and transactional. Effective engagement within such organizations can be built out of an honest understanding of organizational, employee and manager ambitions, and by identifying opportunities where participation can strengthen the organization’s commercial offerings or production processes. (Jim Shaffer’s “The Leadership Solution” provides some excellent examples).

The Engagement of the Ring

With apologies to JRR Tolkien, we now come to “the Engagement of The Ring”—the level of exceptional emotional commitment, supernormal productivity, and unbounded corporate enthusiasm many who speak of “Engagement” actively seek.

Indeed, if and when they reach that point, they offer the organization their “ring”—their willingness to “honor, love, and obey”.

In seeking the “engagement rings” of their staffs, however, are organizations willing to wear those rings forever? Indeed, are organizations willing to offer anything at all?

The Corporate Leadership Board’s definition of engagement: “the extent to which an associate commits to something or someone in their organization”, is particularly classic in that it spells out no role or responsibility on the organization’s part in the engagement equation.

Indeed, it is fair to ask whether organizations should want to seek or take the “engagement rings” of its employees. If “Engagement” is a state of mutual happiness in an organization, will it create cultures that stifle dissent, innovation and change? If it is about “extraordinary mutual commitment” and there are deep senses of obligation on both sides, can such an organization withstand competition from companies whose approaches are honest but far more flexible?

Most importantly–if companies who have sought the “engagement of the ring” then decide to seek more flexibility and fewer obligations, will the ensuing sense of betrayal result in the “engagement of the rifle”?

I do see companies for whom “the engagement of the ring” makes sense—companies where personal involvement in the product or the process of delivering it makes it a unique, premium offering. Effectively achieving “engagement of the ring” needs to balance the exceptional things the organization is willing to offer with the exceptional commitment sought from its managers and staff.

In Closing

The “Four Forms Of Engagement” is but a starting point—a first salvo in the effort to inject a new and strategic perspective in the industry’s discussion of engagement, and its effort to formulate approaches that meet client needs and respect the level of participation of all involved.

It does represent a full frontal assault, however, on the idea that “Engagement” is some kind of a one-size-fits-all solution, or a normative result that all responsible organizations “must achieve”.

For we internal communicators didn’t invent engagement, we are not introducing it to anyone, nor are we responsible for its success. Engagement exists in some form among all employees, managers, suppliers and customers of all organizations. The value we can add is by channeling it: effectively, honestly and responsibly.

Thank you Mike for offering this very thoughtful and though-provoking perspective. If you would like to learn more about Mike Klein or more from Mike Klein, click here.

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