Saturday, June 8, 2013

Engagement is a Personal Choice

Which came first - the chicken or the egg?  Increasing employee engagement has always been an organizational goal (it increases productivity and decreases costly turnover).  As times get harder and we have to ask people to do more with less and take furlough days we seem to also be pushing our managers to increase employee engagement.  Those who know me may think that this last sentence is dripping with sarcasm.  Actually, the more I think about it, maybe not so much.

Two recent campaigns at my condo building make me think that there really is more to engagement than an external push.  A few months ago, fed up with the conflicting information our owners had received from Harris Teeter and the condo board, an owner (Sarah) put together a simple form letter, left it on the concierge desk, obtained 400 signatures, and took them to the Arlington County Board to advocate for them to clear the way for Harris Teeter to move back into our building after a flood last year (when we were being told that the county was holding the rebuild up).  The board, kindly and publicly, let the owners know that they had cleared the way two months prior.  Within 48 hours, Harris Teeter had publicly committed to a time frame to move back in and work began within a few weeks.  One owner represented over 400 engaged owners and put the facts out to the public and caused action where none had been taken in almost a year.

Today I read a story on my condo's informal group today about an important vote that is occurring in August and they are struggling to get proxy votes.  The first I heard about this was as an aside two days ago from our management company.  Unlike the Harris Teeter situation, if this vote does not go through there will be a financial impact to each owner.

So why the difference in owner engagement between having a grocery store in our building and receiving an assessment?  Do we all care more about easy food access than our own cash?  I seriously doubt it.  Do we need to have Sarah as our board President if we want anything to ever be done right.  Personally, I would advocate yes, but I don't think that entirely explains the difference in engagement.

I think in every situation in our lives, we make a single decision to engage or disengage.  I would argue that Sarah disseminated great information in her usual pleasant and energetic manner and made it very easy for people to decide to engage.  Our board, over the last six years, has continuously disregarded owner concerns, publicly berated those who try to raise real issues, and withheld critical information.  Many well-intentioned owners have beat their heads against brick walls trying to make a positive difference in our community only to end up completely exhausted and cynical.  I have watched some dear friends try and on more than one occasion completely withdrawn from the entire thing because I didn't have that fight in me.  I made a conscious decision to disengage.

There are people in our history who never take no for an answer and find away around obstacles rather than stopping at them.  They are engaged regardless of the environment in which they are operating.  So the external environment cannot be the only determining factor.

Engagement and Disengagement are not in and of themselves right or wrong.  My mother used to say, "if all your friends jumped off a bridge would you do it, too?"  Granted this was before bungee jumping became popular, but her point was essentially, sometimes you need to make the decision for yourself to disengage from what those around you are doing.  Just like there are times you need to make the decision to engage when all those around you have given up.  (And no that doesn't mean I am running for condo board President, but I will sign my proxy.)

So that brings us back to leadership.  Yes, we can create negative situations in which people decide that it is in their best interest to disengage.  And yes, we can create incentive structures in which people decide that it is in their best interest to engage.  But the decision for an employee to engage or disengage at the office is ultimately that of the employee.  So what can a good leader to do?

  • Notice whether individual employees are engaged or disengaged.  If you have to wait for an annual survey to tell you the answer to this question you are not an engaged leader.
  • Work with engaged employees to capitalize on their engagement.  Especially in rough times, if you have an engaged employee you need to be developing that enthusiasm and energy!
  • Work with disengaged employees to find out what they need to be engaged.  Even in these times, it may not be more money.  But you will never know unless you ask.  (And asking on that generic annual survey does not count.  Nor do "Town Hall Meetings" where you do all the talking about why they need to do more with less and take furlough days.)
Engagement starts with the employee choosing to engage.  A leader's job around employee engagement is to reward engagement and to work individually with disengaged employees.  The same is true for volunteer engagement, political engagement, and educational engagement because at the core, engagement is a personal choice.  

Do you agree or disagree?  What else can a leader do to turn the tide?