There is a lot of talk in the business community about how the lack of engaged team members is creating unacceptable levels of inefficiency, lost profits, negativity, reduced creativity, and low morale. According to Gallup, lack of engaged team members creates a loss of close to $500 billion annually in the US. That’s a substantial amount, and I imagine that the intangible costs are even higher.
My biggest question has always been: where does engagement start? Who is engaged? How do they get engaged? What can we do to be engaged? As I read much of the literature about engagement, the focus seems to be on what’s “wrong” with team members who are not engaged. Of course, I can be disabused of my prejudice, but from what I see of business, we as managers and owners seem to be looking one way—and that’s away from us.
Why? Well, probably because that’s all we know to do. How and where could we have learned how to help others become engaged in their work? Was there a class on that where you went to school? I am pretty sure there wasn’t. I hope there are some out there today.
As a first step, we might look at the original literature about engagement. My instinct says to look to Mary Parker Follett, whom we described in our book as the “pioneering management consultant who developed a concept called ‘The Law of the Situation.’ Follett was a leader in the development of the concept of management in the 1920s. Often called the “Prophet of Management” (also the title of her biography), she was a major influence on renowned management thought leader Peter Drucker, who wrote the introduction to her biography. Here’s a summary of her landmark definition:
THE LAW OF THE SITUATION, A DEFINITION
Human relations school of managementconcept that conflicts should be resolved according to the facts of the situation and not by reference to the relative superiority of any party over the other. In other words, the search for solutions to management problems should be governed by the demands of the situation and not by reference to any authority or principle. Proposed by the US management philosopher Mary Parker Follett (1868–1933). [Source: Business Dictionary.com;
The key here is that Follett’s ideas and in particular the Law of the Situation and another concept called Power With versus Power Over are a baseline for many of the insightful and major changes in business today.”[i]
What can we take from this? I believe that the first message is that solutions come naturally from a collaborative process where all the elements are weighed in the process. The second message is that this collaborative process needs to be truly collaborative—there can be no overriding forces that distort or torque the event(s) and the results. We’ve come to see this as a “come alongside” approach.
“Come alongside” means to us that we approach any and all situations with a sense of appreciation of others, of what they have accomplished, of what they have to say, and of whether they are willing or not willing to move forward. We embrace and become engaged in “what’s happening,” not in what is wrong. Therefore, our first instinct is not to seek answers, but to find out the lay of land, so to speak, and in doing so track where the situation is going and what variables are driving it. We find that the unintended consequence of focusing on what’s wrong is that we fall into the old “fire, ready, aim” dynamic where after the smoke clears we discover we’ve killed the innocents and let the bad guys get away.
As a management consultants and advisors working to build and rebuild companies and other organizations, the first questions we ask are collaborative in nature: Where do we fit into the situation? Where are we most useful? How can we help? We don’t take over. We come alongside the situation and the teams so that we can do this together. Yes, we have answers, and yes, we may have done all of this before, but how can we leverage what we know, and how we can help unless we are doing it together? More than ever when problems arise, we need to tap into the wisdom of the individuals on the scene and the teams we are working with.
A good example of the power and simplicity of this process lies within a fairly new project of ours. We’ve been asked to help a successful manufacturing operation take advantage of its recent expansion to position it for exceptional growth and immeasurable success. There are three facilities and 225 team members, including the owners. The success of the company has created an increased sense of purpose and accountability in the team members—not only do they want to be involved, but they want to be much more involved than before.
One approach we often take is to interview a goodly number, say 10% to 15%, of the team members, usually senior managers and supervisors. Occasionally we also ask all the employees to complete a simple confidential survey. As an introduction to the process, we met with the 15 team members whom we would interview in person. In that meeting we also talked about the overall process. In doing so, we discussed case studies of other projects, asked the team members about the current situation, and solicited their involvement—but most importantly, we asked them for their advice and feedback.
This was advice we would take and embrace, and they were made aware of that. We discussed the larger survey and how it might be used, or maybe not used. We explained how it had been used many times before in different ways and answered procedural questions. We then asked if they felt that the larger survey might work in their company and how it might be administered: would we send it out, or would the company send it? Would a trusted individual in the company become totally responsible for the survey? Should we solicit input from everyone, or be selective? Needless to say, they were being asked to come alongside this process and be responsible and engaged for an important part of the program. After an hour or so, we broke up the meeting and they asked if they could huddle to figure out what we should do about the survey.
The next day they came back with their decision and their plan for orchestrating the survey process. They voted that everyone should take the survey, and they all personally took boots-on-the-ground responsibility for helping all the employees to know that the survey was a serious and important process and that they wanted everyone’s support. They had come alongside the future of the company and their individual futures as well by taking ownership of the survey and the its success by making sure it reached everyone and that everyone felt safe in participating. They put the survey process in place, ensuring that it was confidential, meaningfully presented, and that all the responses were submitted on time so we could continue our work.
These results were exceptional. The come alongside approach affirmed everyone’s importance to the process and ignited their engagement. From their engagement flowed the plan they wanted to follow for the wellbeing of their company, and their commitment to execute it. The key was that I was engaged. I sought a “power with” environment, not a “power over” dynamic. I also trusted in the Law of the Situation. They ended up doing the right thing and most importantly the right thing for them, for the employees, and for the company itself.
So, if you want engaged employees, you need to be engaged with them and with the company as well. Demonstrating how we can come alongside them and be engaged in the situations at hand and in the company overall sets an example, sets the tone, and sets up an environment for collaboration—and collaboration builds a framework for change and revolutionary success.
An amazing resource for helping us to stay in a “come alongside” mode are the S.H.A.R.E.™ Tools outlined in our book Revolutionary Conversations™: The Tools You Need for the Success You Want, and the roadmap and language that you and others can use to make and take collaboration and creativity to a whole new level of success. The information in this book is designed to help all of us to go beyond win/lose and even beyond win/win to a place where my idea vs. your idea can’t go. The wisdom of each team member and the wisdom of a collaborative process reinforced by the Tools will, we hope, create a whole new and much more dynamic environment for everyone.
So, first "come alongside" yourself and embrace collaboration and the tools that make collaboration work. Then look forward to reaching a level where everyone wins and there are no losers.
Excerpted from Revolutionary Conversations™: The Tools You Need for the Success You Want by Mark Fowler, Noal McDonald, and Barbara Gaughen-Muller.