Is That Sucking Sound You Killing Engagement?

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May 13, 2019

I started reading An Everyone Culture recently and came across a personal story that blew me away. The book follows three true learning organizations, and then analyzes the commonalities to propose a method that any organization can use to become a “DDO” – a deliberately developmental organization. Good read.

In the story, a leader described feedback she’d received from a subordinate whom she called her “canary in a coal mine.” He said that he felt the room go cold when things weren’t going her way. After much grueling soul searching, the leader concluded that “for people to be able to flourish, they would need to do it in their own way, and not the way I thought was the way.” Wow!

You can’t read any business journal today without seeing the words “employee engagement.” We hear from Gallup that 87% of the workforce is not engaged. And thousands of vendors will sell you the panacea.

Perhaps this courageous leader in the book gained insight into a different way of engaging employees – not disengaging them? I would propose that all the engagement tools in the arsenal are useless if intentional disengagement is in play.

Somewhere back in the 1990s organizational psychologists began to demean the “command and control” leadership style of the industrial age, and tout a more “participative leadership” style and inevitably vendors set up shop to help organizations make the transition and management fads took off.

It was about the same time that organizations were downsizing and the highly effective management training programs that hired and trained workers to leadership skills fell prey to cost cutting. It was much less costly to take the best worker and promote her to manager (sorry, the sarcasm just came out).

Let me get to my point. If today’s leaders cling to the concept that they know what to do and how to do it better than others and they allow others to see this bias, they cannot engage their team. They suck the life out of the team.

4 steps

The leader in the story above made an interesting point about receiving early feedback, before the “canary” shared his. She said, “I listened to it all, but I literally couldn’t see it. I didn’t know what to do with it.” This make sense – if you have forged your career with success after success, you have an ingrained approach to your work that has proven effective. It has become a habit. But if that success is due to your own concept, knowledge and actions, it may be sucking the life out of your team. How can you know? Here’s how:

The first step: Accept

Accept that being an effective leader does not mean being omniscient, omnipotent, or doing all the work your way. Being an effective leader means bringing the best thinking together to collectively come to a solution.

It’s not enough for you to know you don’t have to do everything; your team needs to know you know you don’t. If you’re having trouble getting your head around this concept, watch Brene Brown describe the power of vulnerability in leadership.

The next step: Ask

This is pretty simple if you’re open to it. Observe – does your team wait for you to make decisions? Do their faces look confused, uncertain or shut down?

If you’re not sure, ask. This assumes the team trusts you otherwise, they won’t be honest. It is probably not a good idea to ask, “Do I suck the life out of this team.” When a team is invited to share feedback to their leader, they need to know why.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable and let the team know that you are working on your own development as a leader, so that you can be most effective with the team. Let them know that you need and want their help.

The, perhaps an open-ended question like, “What might I do differently to get you excited about the work we are doing?” This is a good question, but you may have to ask a few times. If asking for feedback is outside the norm, it will take a while to build the trust that you really want to know.

The third step: Listen

Try not to be defensive. This might be one of the more difficult tasks you’ve undertaken, but it is very important. Defensiveness comes in many forms. It can be a simple and honest as just wanting to explain your rationale.

But remember, listening isn’t about you, it’s about the speaker. If you have invited candor, you’ll shut it down in a nanosecond by trying to explain. You may be able hear the vacuum cleaner roaring to life.

If you don’t understand, ask for examples. If you think you heard, repeat it back and ask if you heard right.

Thank the speakers, sincerely, and let them know how you feel. If you aren’t sure, tell them that. If you’re “shaken,” tell them that. If you’re not sure what to do next, ask permission to revisit the topic after you’ve had time to process.

And the most important: Act

Act doesn’t mean do exactly as you have been told you should do. If you have had time to process, and you still believe your explanation of why you do something is valid, now is the time to share that. Many times, it is simply a matter of not providing context – the “why” – behind your actions. The time for explaining is not immediately after the feedback is delivered, it is after thoughtful consideration of what you hear.

If you do see an opportunity to do things differently, let them know you are trying and would appreciate their continued help.

Put the vacuum cleaner away

Being the leader of a team is a unique role. You’re part of the team, but yet you are the leader. With that comes the ultimate responsibility for success. You can’t do it alone, but you can share this responsibility honestly and openly be allowing your team to see that you are open to their thoughts and ideas. This will bring air into the team, not suck it out.

This originally appeared on Carol Anderson’s blog @the intersection of learning & performance.