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Can Employee Engagement Be Taught Or Is It An Internal Locus Of Control? (Part 2 of 2)

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Below is a continuation of Monday’s LinkedIn blog discussion.  To read Part 1 of this discussion, click here.

[A LinkedIn member responds to the earlier part of this discussion…] “Your story is truly wonderful, thank you for sharing it with us…honestly. But I am afraid, I am not convinced…it feels like you merely (of course, very skillfully) facilitated change that was already ripe and ready to take place… Or are you saying you taught them engagement after all? If not, who did? Will they be engaged tomorrow, next month, in 6 month’s time? I’d rather say you enabled them to experience what an engaged environment / employees look and feel like, and helped them channel their thoughts and energy in a positive way…which I can imagine, must have been a wonderful thing to experience…hope all your good work continues…

[And my reply…] Interesting observations, and it does bring up a critical point when we are looking for ways to improve employee engagement (EE). Namely, most employees do want to be engaged in the workplace. It is a default preference, if you will. So when one says these employees might have been “ripe and ready” I agree. But that is the case in most work environments, at least in well-developed economies where the workforce is a generation or two past assembly line work.

But a generalized sense of “ripe and ready” within the workforce does not necessarily lead to EE. It could also lead to disengagement if it feels like things will never change; never get better, etc. So I believe what happened, and this sentiment was expressed explicitly by participants, was that these employees felt a new sense of empowerment and hope about creating a better (more engaging) workplace. Did I create an opportunity for them to express their latent desires? You bet. Without a trigger event to help channel those desires in a positive way, they can remain destructive. And if they left feeling more empowered, then they left with higher levels of engagement, guaranteed.

So I guess I bristle at the characterization that what occurred was “merely” facilitation. Real change occurred, opinions and perspectives shifted, and what was latent in the form of resentment and resignation was turned in a more positive direction that will result in additional value to the organization. I was merely a facilitator, to be sure, but the result, I believe, was very meaningful and otherwise might never have occurred.

So now I go to the question of did I “teach them” about engagement? I suppose it depends on what you mean by “teach.” There seems to be some distinction between teaching and experiencing, as if the two are separate. Perhaps they are, but I can’t think of a better way to teach someone about a condition or concept other than actually experiencing it at an emotional level — the only place real behavioral change takes hold.

Stated another way, engagement is not a cognitive exercise like learning in the classroom. It is more like an emotional state where employees feel safe enough and motivated enough to release their discretionary effort. You will never be able to “instruct” employees in how to be more engaged. But felt experiences are essential drivers to EE. Without them your efforts are doomed to failure.

There is another issue raised here that should concern us all. “Will they be engaged tomorrow, next month, in 6 month’s time?” That’s a tough one. I don’t think what happened with these employees is enough to create lasting levels of higher EE. If the point is that what I described is not enough to create lasting, sustainable, change — then I would agree. One event, even one powerful emotional experience, is not enough. These events and experiences need to be frequent and come from multiple sources (culture, peers, managers, etc.). We need rituals of recognition, frequent feedback, and consistent celebration.

BEST PRACTICES TIP:  Employee engagement is not a cognative (intellectual) exercise, it is inherently emotional at its core.  So worry less about “instruction,” and focus more on the felt experience.

To view the entire LinkedIn discussion, click here.

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Don Rheem’s presentation on Employee Engagement gets underneath the real “whys” on the behavior of discretionary effort. I found his examples to be relative and understandable. I see how our leaders are making better connections with the hearts of our people, so everyone better understands the goals of the enterprise.

--Peter Rittenhouse, Director of Supply Chain
Nestle Waters
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