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Engagement: The Missing Link

By: Rick Piraino

employee engagement


Engagement is a hot topic in leadership awareness these days. Let me offer a different spin on it by linking it to the notion of honoring chain of command. Let’s begin with definitions. Engaged employees care about and are committed to their work, their boss and their company. Chain of command is honored when leaders work through the leaders below them to get results. Now let’s adapt chain of command to include the employee and his work. Do we honor the employees’ ownership of their work or do we jump the chain of command and insert ourselves between them and their jobs?


Engagement is natural to human nature. We are born with it.


If you’ve ever lived in the same house with a two-year old, you know you don’t need to encourage the child’s curiosity, interest or eagerness to learn. It is a great day when a child can button his own shirt or tie her own shoes. There is a passion for learning that is part of human nature. It is what has allowed us to survive, grow and develop as a species. So, what happens to this innate human tendency?


The psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, describes most of us as growing up in “cultures of domination.” In them, the person in authority uses his position to declare the rightness or wrongness of the subordinate. Think about this for a moment. Instead of supporting the learning process that drives engagement, the authority figure makes statements about the individual’s value based on whether a desired outcome was obtained. This kind of leadership was pointed out in a poignant story Marshall told about a seven-year old boy who was working on a math problem. The boy’s answer was incorrect, so the aid asked how he had arrived at it. The boy burst into tears saying, “I got it wrong!”


This kid was not having fun with math. His focus was no longer on the excitement of learning but on keeping the authority figure, his teacher, happy. His teacher had jumped the chain of command. Instead of sitting beside the boy and guiding his thinking, she was in the business of declaring the rightness or wrongness of his results and the goodness or badness of the boy by extension. She had inserted herself between the boy and his work learning math – a guaranteed engagement killer.


Now let’s think about the workplace. Leaders jump chain of command when they take a top down approach giving feedback. When leaders solve their employee’s work problems for them, they discourage thinking. When they micromanage, they insert themselves between the worker and her work. When leaders become impatient with an employee’s learning curve they may take over the work and do the job. The employee may be standing on the side lines watching the boss do his job for him. Do that enough times and we are training employees to become disengaged.


To support engagement, begin by reviewing any leadership behaviors that might be disengaging. Not listening or listening just enough to go into telling mode; criticizing; micromanaging; dictating; chronically playing the devil’s advocate are just a few of the behaviors that can undermine employee engagement.


Daniel Pink reminds us that human beings are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These are the drivers of engagement. With autonomy he cites a company called Atlassian which, once a quarter, gives their employees a day to do anything they want. The only requirement is that they share what they did in a company meeting – a fun meeting, with pizza even. Very casual. That practice has resulted in software fixes and innovations that never would have been created without that one day of autonomy.


Now mastery, why do most people have hobbies? To express a talent, learn and get better at something. Mastery is a strong motivator and a source of pride and identity. Wikipedia gets highly skilled volunteers, who already have jobs, to write articles for free. Why? As an expression of mastery and the desire to contribute.


And finally, purpose, not just profit. Does my company and my work make the world a better place? Steve Jobs’ purpose for Apple was to put a ding in the universe. Does my company help me serve a greater good? Is my work part of something bigger? 


There’s only one kind of human nature. Our two-year olds, our teenagers and our adults are programed to be engaged.


The question for leadership is, are we working with human nature or so focused on results we override it?





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