Updated: Nov 16, 2019
(originally published on LinkedIn 29-July-2019)
There's an old expression, "It takes two to tango". My spouse and I actually took tango lessons for about a year before our wedding. I'm not going to lie - our instructor probably quit after having us as students. You see, we're both very strong leaders (and fairly stubborn people), and it was radically difficult for either of us to give up what we see as "control", and so our initial sloppy, grudging attempts at "following" looked more like somebody trying to drag a limp noodle across the dance floor. Not terribly effective. We will never win any dance awards, but we eventually figured out a rhythm of who got to be in charge when, and our friends (truthfully or out of a sense of kindness) tell us we look pretty good when we're out on the floor having fun.
Employee engagement is a lot like the tango. Typically, somebody, usually management, has to be in charge, mostly because engagement is unavoidably tangled up with culture, and culture requires some direction from leadership. Sometimes, engagement also requires some kind of investment, and the purse strings are also held by leadership, so yes. Leadership does have to be engaged in making "Engagement" a viable concept.
Much like the tango, though, it takes two (or two million... depends on the size of your company!) to make it work. If your people are playing the role of the "limp noodle, there's very little change that engagement will magically occur. Management does have a role to play here, creating an environment of psychological safety and a commitment to following through on feedback, of course, but if folks don't choose to "lean in" or "embrace the suck" or whatever phrase you're currently using to express a state of being involved to SOME degree, we can't blame management. We all have a part to play. Just like good dancers spend time practicing, companies can create spaces for employees to take control of their own engagement, and employees can step into those spaces and be part of the process.
Engagement is very much a dance, and like a good tango, we don't always know what's coming next and have to be actively aware and intently focused on the situation so we can respond. And like dancing, when your company is just starting out, there will almost certainly be missteps. Maybe a program is really a bad fit and they "step on toes" painfully. Does that mean that engagement will never be possible, that you'll never learn to dance? Nope. Leadership has to be willing to listen to their dance partners to understand the needs, though, and it's almost guaranteed to be an ongoing process of incremental improvement.
When we told our friends we were learning to tango, some of them scoffed, and informed us, "I don't dance!" I hear some people in leadership taking a similar stance on engagement. "We don't do "engagement"". Yeah, no kidding... it's pretty obvious. Turn-over, absenteeism, decreased productivity, burn-out... Engagement is a major indicator of success and growth, and companies who don't "do" engagement are really just hurting themselves. A recently article on Forbes quantified the impact of disengagement at 34% of a disengaged employees salary. You can do the math.
You don't have to plan to be a Grand National Dance Champion or "Top 5 Places to Work" winner... but every organization can benefit from mindfully approaching the issue of engagement in smart, intentional ways. And just like dance, you might need to involve the services of somebody (like our poor dance instructor) who specializes in engagement. A business coach focusing on employee engagement can help you skip the phase where you watch YouTube videos and waste your time. (hypothetically, of course).
Want to "dance" on the topic of engagement? I've got some space on my dance card - send me a note!