Dialogue and Empowerment Trump Action Planning
By Christopher Rice, Fraser Marlow, and Mary Ann Masarech
Don’t expect an initiative to do a human’s job. Engagement is a personal equation, and managers must play a role in helping each employee solve it. Your best managers already understand this, as do many of the leaders we’ve interviewed. They’re not waiting for survey data to shape what they do. They don’t make engagement a once-a-year priority, distinct from what they do the rest of the time. They always manage their teams with an eye toward results and engagement.
How do they do it? Dialogue. Sounds pretty simple: If you manage employees, you need to talk to them. Yet manager employee conversations are more of a myth than a best practice in a majority of organizations. Many of the managers we interviewed sheepishly acknowledge that they should have more regular sit-downs with their individual team members, but a variety of excuses (e.g., “Not enough time,” “Mired in my own work,” “Never get around to it”) stand in the way. That is too bad, because dialogue is at the heart of high engagement and sustainable performance.
So rather than investing your time and resources in driving manager compliance with check-the-box corporate-driven online engagement action plans, get your managers talking to their people.
The Virtuous Cycle: Dialogue, Relationships, and Trust
Team meetings can act as a way to act locally on survey findings. Those discussions simultaneously encourage employees to take action to increase their own engagement and create an upward feedback loop that senior leaders can use to spot trends in engagement barriers and levers. Now we’re talking about the types of one-on-one conversations between managers and employees that should happen all year round.
These conversations are critical to gathering the type of information managers need to better coach individual employees to higher levels of engagement. But the benefits extend far beyond data gathering. When managers take the time to check in with employees, they demonstrate interest in—and commitment to—their employees’ success. The exchange of information that occurs in the conversations strengthens the working relationships and fuels mutual trust.
Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, speaks of a former boss, Mark Halacy at Blockbuster Entertainment, who understood the power of one-on-one connections. Halacy would have quarterly lunches with his direct reports. He would go beyond just discussing work and inquire what was happening in an individual’s personal life. “Mark understood what motivated each employee. It was very cool that he got to know the little things, the personal things. Talking about these things humanized him to me, and me to him.”
Taylor’s comment underscores the value of managers learning the personal interests and motivators of employees, but research also supports the value of employees getting to know managers as people—beyond their titles and accomplishments. In one study, 87 percent of engaged employees indicated that they know their manager well or very well compared to less than a quarter of disengaged workers.
We are not suggesting that managers become best friends with all their direct reports, socializing off hours or relating detailed accounts of what they did on their days off. Nor is the goal to create unfiltered sharing. (There are clearly differences between authenticity and authentic leadership. London Business School professor Rob Goffee and his colleague Gareth Jones describe this balance as “know and show yourself— enough.”)
We are saying that it’s important for managers to share personal motivation and insights about themselves, such as the following:
- What is important to them in their role?
- What challenges are they facing?
- When are they most engaged at work?
- Why did they join this organization and why do they stay?
- What successes or mistakes inform their leadership style?
- When they consider the organization’s future, what are they most excited about?
- What is most important to them about the organization’s mission, values, or long-term strategy?
Think of your own situation: How well do your team members know you? Do all of them share that knowledge? How can you be sure? Whenever we pose those questions to a group of leaders, we encounter awkward silence or comments such as, “Sure they do. We’ve been working together for years.” But working with people for a long time does not guarantee knowledge of personal motivators.
When managers share information about their personal motivators, challenges, and engagement drivers, they model the type of open communication they want to create with employees. It creates the climate for a true partnership and a virtuous circle of dialogue, stronger relationships, and increased trust. Managers need to go first. If they don’t, the conversations we explore next may fall short of their objectives.
X Marks the Spot
There are at least four types of conversations that your managers can initiate around the playing field of the employee ’s job—where organizational and individual interests intersect: performance appraisals, career discussions, onboarding discussions, and engagement reviews. Each one:
- Plays a specific role in driving employee engagement and business performance.
- Offers a distinct opportunity for managers to approach engagement from a different angle.
- Provides a forum for employees to enlighten their manager about their personal engagement drivers.
- Can be embedded with the language of your organization’s engagement model once you have defined it.
- Contains content that should be addressed through ongoing dialogue, although it is most often associated with formal, regularly scheduled sit-downs.
- Would be, in an ideal world, driven by your employees as easily as your managers.
In theory, three of these conversations already are happening across your organization. If they really are occurring, they are unlikely to be doing enough to support engagement. Let’s look at the engagement review.
The Engagement Review
Let’s assume your managers are conducting annual performance appraisals, regular career coaching conversations, and onboarding discussions with their team members.
You may be thinking, “Are engagement reviews really necessary? Especially if my managers conduct team meetings about our annual survey findings?”
Let’s face it: You may have talented managers, but they can’t read minds. They may have data on their team’s engagement levels, but they cannot assume to know who is engaged and who is not.
Engagement reviews can avoid dangerous pitfalls that develop when, in everyday interactions, managers make assumptions about their direct reports’ engagement levels, and direct reports do not express how they are truly feeling.
Excerpt from Chapter 8 of “The Engagement Equation” by Christopher Rice, Fraser Marlow and Mary Ann Masarech.Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Copyright 2012 by BlessingWhite. For more information, visit http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118308352,descCd-description.html
Christopher Riceis the president and CEO of global consulting firm BlessingWhite, which helps create high-performance cultures that drive results and reinforce organizational values. Recognized in each of the last two years as a “Top 100” thought leader by Leadership Excellence,Rice’s expertise is regularly featured in business and human capital media.
Fraser Marlow is the vice president of Marketing & Research at BlessingWhite. He leads the team that conducts and publishes regular research on workplace issues.
Mary Ann Masarechis the employee engagement practice leader at BlessingWhite. She translates research insights into pragmatic development tools and content that are currently in use at hundreds of organizations worldwide.