Lessons in Engagement: A Taste of Your Own Medicine Can Be Bittersweet

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Dale Carnegie

Lately I have had the feeling that someone backed a dump truck full of lemons onto my lawn. The past couple of weeks in my life have been what you might call…a long story! But first, a little context.

For quite some time I have believed that those of us in the “employee engagement” field, profession, obsession, infatuation, call it what you will, etc., were “tilting at windmills” in our pursuit of factors to adjust, tweak, fluff up, incent and track in pursuit of some evidence of an ability to elevate the level of engagement of our workforce. As each cycle of surveys rolls around we know that “world class” is just around the next corner. No it’s not!

Even if our scores get better, even if we get into the upper echelons of scores in our industry, businesses our size, in our part of the country or whatever other way we choose to measure ourselves. “World Class” engagement is not just beyond our reach. In my view until we can recognize that we have yet to truly determine what it is we need to measure we have no lever into reliably influencing levels of engagement.

This is not to say that what we have been measuring is meaningless. I would submit that what we have been measuring is very meaningful and useful; it just hasn’t been a measure of engagement, more likely we’ve been measuring the offspring of employee satisfaction or employee satisfaction 2.0

From my unscientific perch, observing employees at work for the past twenty five years I am prepared to assert that employees are always engaged, the question is which phase they are operating in….

  • Fully and Freely – Characterized by Choice, frequently exceeding expectations
  • Compliant – Characterized by Need, barely meeting expectations
  • Resistant – Characterized by Fear, failing to meet expectations

In my world engagement is a moving target and has more to do with resilience than any of the current popular factors being measured. By resilience I mean the ability to embrace whatever circumstances are being faced without regard to any concern for effectiveness or need to have things be any other way than they are, and the discomfort that accompanies such ambiguity is not paralyzing.

Life is frequently ambiguous, the workplace also frequently introduces us to ambiguity and we do not get to vote, we get to deal with it.

We do not like ambiguity and we are highly likely to become less than fully effective in the face of the ensuing discomfort. Call it confrontation if you like; say that many people are conflict averse if that seems nobler. What’s true is that we don’t like being in ambiguous circumstances and therefore uncomfortable for any length of time and will go out of our way to minimize discomfort, in fact we are so nuts about the discomfort brought on by ambiguity that we can become overcome traumatized by it, profoundly fearful in its presence.

Based on my experience I’d be prepared to wager something worthwhile that somewhere around 80-85% of every workforce is highly ineffective in the face of the discomfort that accompanies ambiguity. Tough times where outcomes look highly unpredictable and filled with perceived negative consequences have a devastating impact on productivity.

So now what about life handing us lemons and making lemonade? There is a big assumption there that needs to be talked about. What if you don’t have the sugar necessary? Can you just let the lemons be lemons and take effective action?

As a coach and developer of managers for many years I will frequently have the ambiguity/discomfort conversation with whomever I am working with. It has always seemed so fundamental to me and yet it has always looked so difficult to grasp by the people I was working with.

Earlier I mentioned a dump truck full of lemons and the last couple of weeks of my life. There are lots of details but they all boil down to an 88 year old father who had a stroke about three weeks back, an 87 year old mother who has severe back problems and a 59 year old brother with an active drug addiction all living under one roof.

The events of the past two weeks in particular drew me directly into the center of the unworkability in my family. I arrived in my home town for what I imagined was going to be a recon trip to determine what we might take as best actions on behalf of my parents. What I ended up doing was tending to my brother’s issues; taking a trip to the emergency room, making a visit to a courtroom and having my very first meeting with a probation officer were just some of the fun features of my visit home. Suddenly and without planning to be I was daily facing situations I didn’t know how to deal with and in each instance I found myself needing to make a choice, stay and play or run away. I stayed. I can’t say I liked it, that I was eventually victorious (if you’ve ever dealt with addiction even a draw seems like a win), or that I was courageous, brave or whatever. I certainly did not feel that way.

What I can say is that I had an object lesson in what I have believed was true about engagement, it has more to do with maintaining a clear sense of what needs to be accomplished in the face of ambiguity than it does any external rightness or wrongness with the circumstances. I made some progress, I didn’t declare victory, I met the enemy and it was me and my sensitivity to discomfort. I stayed engaged, there is no lemonade at the end of this story, just lemons and they are sour.

  • We need to find ways to improve the resilience of the workforce, increased engagement will naturally follow.

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