The Flip Side of Employee Engagement

In a world where Gallup pollsters say 71% of American workers are “disengaged” from their work, “employee engagement” is clearly an issue needing to be addressed.  There have been numerous posts on TalentCulture about employee engagement, and Meghan M. Biro recently published an article about it in Forbes.  Dan Pink’s book “Drive” talks at length about the science of what motivates us. (Oddly enough, it’s not money, at least, money does not motivate the kind of work that really matters these days, like problem-solving and creative/visionary thinking.)

Since more and more of our work falls into “creative” categories, and emotional engagement is key to maximizing creativity and thus productivity, and money doesn’t motivate these tasks, how do we get to a place where employees are more engaged at work?

Instead of starting from zero and looking for fixes, I suggest looking at a workplace where “employee engagement” is already at 100% all of the time: a major symphony orchestra.

I once had the privilege of playing in the Boston Pops, where total “employee engagement” was standard procedure. In that culture, we weren’t concerned so much with “how to get it” as we were with making sure nothing got in the way of it. And the biggest issue was not employEE engagement, but “employER engagement.”

If you have ever wondered why major symphony orchestras take so long to find music directors, it’s not for a lack of applicants for the job. The issue is finding someone who can handle being a manager in a 100% employee engagement environment. This is a lot harder than you might think.

As an orchestral musician, I often observed young wannabe maestros as they were given their shot at the bigtime with a guest conducting stint. It was amazing just how many of them could not do the job. It wasn’t because they lacked musical talent or skill. What was lacking was an ability to accept the massive energy of the “engaged employees.”

You see, for many of these wannabe maestros, whenever the music got too loud or too exciting, amazingly, they just would slow things down, as too much excitement would exceed their need-for-control comfort level. Yes, this certainly sounds crazy; after all, in the music business, emotional excitement is itself the product. But I saw this self-defeating phenomenon happen over and over again. They actually resisted “employee engagement.”

You will see this “emotional fractal” occur in all kinds of situations.  Many people just assume that having things “under control” is equivalent to being productive and doing their job as manager, when in reality it saps energy and sabotages employee engagement. For example, in a recent 60 Minutes program, Sergio Marchionne talked about the previous regime at Chrysler having their executive offices in a far off penthouse suite. In rescuing the company, he moved the executive offices into the same area as the engineers, where they could get access to the CEO without any bureaucratic interference. Again, employee engagement can only occur if there is employer engagement willing to accept it, and not slow it down or prevent it.

You would think that the acceptance of massive employee engagement energy would be an easy and obvious thing to do, but for many people, it isn’t. When someone gets into a serious management role for the first time, it is rare that they have had any real long term gut-level preparation for the job. For example, they may not be used to trusting people on such a grand scale. They may be overly concerned about what their own boss thinks of them. They may be more concerned about loyalty to the past, “following standard procedure,” or “mistake prevention” than they are about overall productivity. They may not be able to handle the social discomfort stemming from their newfound power over former colleagues, or they may unwittingly abuse their power without realizing how it can affect worker attitudes. And perhaps most of all, the ability to graciously accept the gift of people coming to work every day and giving you everything they’ve got is not something we pick up in gym class. It’s a quantum leap in how one looks at the world.

Everyone who steps into a management role is a unique individual with their own set of past trust violations, issues with authority, shame issues about mistakes, confidence here and insecurity there, and inexperience with handling power, not mention just plain old fear and other human foibles. They may not be ready to handle the overwhelming amount of emotional energy that a team of “engaged” workers wants to throw at them. The natural response is always to slow things down.

Addressing these issues at their core emotional level gets into the realm of “touchy feely,” where many managers, especially those who have more technical skills than people skills, feel uncomfortable. But “engagement” is no longer a nice thing to have, it is now essential to your bottom line.  So if your issue is a lack of “employee engagement,” this is probably just an inevitable result of an emotional bottleneck occurring at the management level, and that is where the problem should be solved.

In many learning environments and business cultures, stress, anxiety, and bureaucratic distancing often lead to emotional numbness, so the trust, openness, connection, and personal recognition that so many workers seek from their boss are rare commodities. Leaders who inspire their team by offering these emotional responses (despite all the stress of their role) are generally seen as mystical beings who are “born with it,” but it is a skill that can be cultivated in anyone, given proper training.

(About the Author: Justin Locke spent 18 years playing bass in the Boston Pops, and his musical plays are performed all over the world.  As an author, speaker, and coach, he shares a pragmatic artistic approach to personal growth, “people skills,” and managing “top performers.” For more, visit his website at www.justinlocke.com.)

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