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Mar 12, 2012

I don’t usually read things that jump out and grab me, but an article in Sunday’s New York Times did, because it had probably the best definition of employee engagement that you’ll ever see, anywhere.

It was in the Corner Office column, which is a weekly business Q&A with an executive they get to chat about what it is like to be a leader, and they also usually talk in some depth about their larger management philosophy. This week’s interview was with Jim Whitehurst, the president and CEO of Red Hat, the provider of Linux and other open-source technology, and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting any jump-up-and-grab-you management wisdom from him.

But then Whitehurst started to discuss leadership and getting employees to REALLY embrace the company’s goals and how much more you can accomplish when they do that. Here’s what he said that surprised me:

Somebody once told me — and this is some of the best advice I ever got — that for any business there are three levels of leadership. One is getting somebody to do what you want them to do. The second is getting people to think what you want them to think; then you don’t have to tell them what to do because they will figure it out.

But the best is getting people to believe what you want them to believe, and if people really fundamentally believe what you want them to believe, they will walk through walls. They will do anything. People certainly know what to think at Red Hat. We also believe in our open, transparent culture, and so everybody knows why we’re doing what we’re doing. So they will go around obstacles because they’ve bought in.”

Getting people to “walk through walls for you”

Ding! Yes, employee engagement IS the art of “getting people to believe what you want them to believe.” And Whitehurst is 100 percent right that when (if) you can do that with your staff, “they will walk through walls for you.”

Unfortunately, far too many in executive leadership do things the opposite way. That is, they engage in workforce practices that tear down the bond between workers and the organization, and that make the staff wonder, “why should I trust these guys?” I used to work for a company that engaged in some of these practices during the low point of the Great Recession, and the worst thing about it is that much of it came directly from the CEO.

So, that’s why Jim Whitehurst’s management philosophy is so refreshingly simple. Yes, it IS all about “getting people to believe what you want them to believe,” and although it is hardly simple to make that happen, if you can, you’ll find that you have a workforce that will do just about anything to help you move the organization ahead. And THAT’s what employee engagement is all about.

The importance of letting employee debate happen

But there’s more to this Q&A from Red Hat’s Jim Whitehurst than just a great definition of employee engagement. Here’s a little bit more of what he said about getting employee buy-in:

We let debate happen, and you let it kind of burn its way out, with people offering their opinions on both sides of an issue. And then you say: “We’ve listened to all of this. We’ve taken it into consideration and here’s what we’re going to do.” Even the most ardent people opposing whatever decision is ultimately made will at least think: “I had my say. You heard me, and you told me why you made the decision.” It does not have to be a democracy. And this has been true at Red Hat since long before I got there.

Our employees have always expected this: tell me why we’re doing what we’re doing, and allow me at least a voice in the decision process. Now a voice doesn’t mean decision rights. It doesn’t mean you have any say in the answer. But at least you have a vehicle for an opinion to be heard.

A lot of the issues that many companies are now facing is that they think, “I can’t let my employees have a seat at the table in this.” But it’s not about having a seat at the table for the decision. It’s about having a seat at the table to voice their opinions and make sure those opinions are heard.

As long as our employees are involved they will accept virtually any decision. They may say, “We don’t like it, and we still don’t agree with that.” But you listen and you come back with a well-reasoned answer. And that is the expectation that our employees have. I think almost every company is going to have to deal with this over the next 20 years.”

This is really interesting stuff, because like a salmon swimming upstream, it runs against the thinking of so many managers and executives in so many companies. Letting employees have a seat at a table to voice their opinions and make sure they are being heard? I know far too many executives who would rather surrender their perks and stock options than let that happen.

Yes, Jim Whitehurst has some really interesting things to say about management and leading people. It’s cutting edge and forward thinking, and that’s transformational talent management if I ever saw it. Take a read and see if you don’t think so, too.