Engage Me if You Can!

For some time now I’ve been speaking and writing about the value of building an engaged workforce, and about what it takes to accomplish this. And quite often, in my conversations with business leaders, I’ll hear something like this: “I feel like I’ve done about all I can to create a great working environment, and yet there are some people I still can’t seem to get engaged. It’s as if they just refuse to make that emotional commitment to the business and their work. So what do I do?”

My first response to this question is often a story about my father years ago when my mother and sister were preparing for my sister’s wedding. As they were frantically trying to make sure that everything would be just perfect, my father finally asked what all the stress was about.  Their response was, “Well, you know how some of our family are. They can always find fault in something, something to complain about.” My father came back with, “Look, all you can do when you have a party is to have it in a nice place, with good food and drink and good music. Then if some people come and can’t find a way to have a good time, it’s their own fault!”

The moral of this story, and I have come to believe this, is that as leaders we really can’t engage anyone! All we can do is work hard to create an environment that encourages people to become engaged. But the fact is that no matter what we do, some people, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t respond. It’s almost as if their attitude is, “Engage me if you can!” Eventually, whether to be engaged or not comes down to a choice people need to make.

So what do you do about people who choose not to be engaged despite all of your efforts?

Beyond making a sincere effort to see if there are any appropriate issues involved, you don’t spend too much time trying to figure out why they won’t engage, because you never will.  You’re trying to lead an organization, serve the organization, and get results, not serve as a psychologist or social worker. So let’s assume that you’ve had some serious conversations about their attitude, with no appreciable improvement. At that point, they may finally figure out that this place might not be the best fit for them and leave. If not—to borrow a phrase from Jim Collins in Good to Great— it’s probably time for you to  “move them off the bus!” If someone is truly disengaged, it’s very unlikely that they’re performing at a high level, so you can go through the appropriate process to performance manage them out of the organization.

But what about that actively disengaged employee who still manages to deliver results? Bearing in mind that according to Gallup it takes four actively engaged employees just to neutralize the negative effects of one actively disengaged person, it seems fair and entirely justified to consider attitude a performance issue and act accordingly.

Many leaders step back from actively managing attitude, particularly if they hired the person, because they don’t want to admit that they made a hiring mistake. But I’ve never met a leader who’s batted a 1000! As a Servant-Leader, we can’t be afraid to admit a hiring mistake, especially when you’ve done all you can to support and lead the person.

It’s a myth that as a Servant-Leader you should tolerate actively disengaged, cynical and toxic employees. In fact, you’re not serving your other people or the organization if you do. As a leader, what you accept or tolerate has a far greater impact on your organization’s culture than what you say.

As I’ve said in so many previous postings, building an engaged enterprise is not easy, but is it worth doing? What do you think?



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