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People engagement for missionary zeal

I am sitting on the 4pm Aberdeen train looking at my fellow travellers and watching people, in their own time, travelling to or from work. Some seem miserable and resentful, whilst others look happy and engaged. My mind drifts to writing a blog on engagement.


Every Friday morning we have a good news call in the Blackswan business. You can only share good news and people love it. In fact in the seven years we have been doing it, it is the meeting I want to get to most, and everyone always turns up to bring a smile to Friday. I was telling this story to a leader who came to our offices to see how I could help them in their business, a charming leader whose self-deprecating behaviour and emotional vulnerability made me tell him that I would follow him.


That got me thinking: what is it that engages us? Is it good news, great leaders, a great workplace, opportunity, growth, feeling a part of something, or all of these things? I have recently been asked to run master classes on engagement in the UK National Health Service. I was reading employee engagement research from healthcare and other sectors which shows that leaders who help their organisations develop a clear vision and a compelling narrative about mission and priorities achieve higher levels of staff engagement. Staff are more enthusiastic about their work and collaborate more effectively, and this is reflected in better performance (MacLeod and Clarke, 2009). In healthcare, there is evidence that developing a clear mission focused on high quality, compassionate care helps to bridge the fault lines between managers, clinicians and other groups (Bezrukova et al., 2012). Now all of this I am sure is true, but whatever happened to simple language?


I remember when I worked in a corporate environment and was desperate as a young learner to understand leaders. Don’t tell anyone, but I actually used to spend more time watching how others reacted to them, than listening to them. I watched as some leaders got furtive glances as they approached. For others the crowd at the water cooler would suddenly disperse, or they were met by whispers and snickers during meetings. You know that sinking feel when people stare away as you pass them in the hallway, or pretend not to see someone, or the forced smiles? 


Yet others were sought out. People gave huge discretionary effort on their behalf. These leaders did demand excellence from themselves and the people around them, however they removed barriers and added accelerators so others could achieve superior results. They provided development opportunities, made sure the right people got hired and, like a good coach, helped people exceed their own expectations of what’s possible.


As a political strategist in my spare time, I am always interested in what engages people in following one political leader over another and taking political action to support them. I have found that on every measure of engagement, political participation is strongly related to ideology and partisan antipathy; this results in a consistent “U-shaped” pattern, with higher levels of engagement on the right and left of the ideological spectrum, and lower levels in the centre. In the same way that political engagement is heightened by beliefs in an ideology, truly engaged employees behave with the same kind of missionary zeal that political volunteers exhibit seeking money and votes for their favourite candidates.  


Some things I think you should remember…

  • Communicate richly with a clear focus and build an authentic, strong, emotional connection

  • Stop unknowingly creating tension - allow people to be themselves rather than a miniature you

  • Detect the most positive capabilities in people by focusing on strengths rather than highlighting weaknesses

  • Throw their job description away and focus on those areas people enjoy contributing to

  • Empower people to discover potential by allowing their brains to expand beyond the limits of yours

  • Put them in a position of influence, to stimulate decision making with greater involvement

  • Encourage dissent. Genuinely listen to and consider their views. Avenues for constructive dissent should be available

  • Be consistent and have their backs. Encourage them to stretch themselves and you take responsibility for their mistakes

  • Deliver on performance management by being open about your expectations, successes, and failures

  • Model the behaviour you want to see consistently and remember you cannot talk your way out of a problem you have behaved yourself into



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