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Engagement – What’s Going Wrong?

Last week, in the space of 24 hours, I heard the following:

  • A very good friend of mine in a senior management role complaining that whilst she was regularly expected to be on the phone at 10pm for a conference call with the West Coast office, the company hadn’t got round to finishing a pay review for her – promised since 2012
  • A senior HR executive within a well-known corporation telling me that as long as product was flying off the shelves the ‘talent agenda’ would never receive the attention it deserves (interestingly I am coaching a sales person from this organisation on a private basis who is not on target because he doesn’t feel the love)
  • Another friend bemoaned the fact that for the last three years her husband has been commuting 1.5 hours each way, and that she and her daughters only get time with him at the weekend, when he’s tired and recovering from the week

I couldn’t help but be taken aback by these three stories. What is going on? At a time when we have articles, books and blogs written on engagement that could no doubt fill the British library, why has there been so little change?

I confess that as a practitioner in the field, working with companies who are committed to creating a ‘great place to work’ I had a rather rose-coloured perspective on the real picture. But it is clear that pressure on margins, global collaboration and remote working with an expectation of 24/7 connectivity means that having a good culture, with the right pay and reward mechanisms and some social activity thrown in will barely scratch the surface of what people need and want from work in order to feel valued and, well human.

And that’s the point. Ultimately, people want to feel like human beings at work. Not like hamsters on the proverbial hamster wheel. So what needs to change?

If business is to become more human, leaders need to be more human.

Business is made up of people, yet this tends to get forgotten in the midst of task and target-driven conversation and activity. So let’s go back to basics:

1. Meaning

Yes, we’re back to purpose. Purpose beyond profit. Purpose that at its core, has some kind of service element. What problem does your product or service solve? What would happen if your product or service didn’t exist in the world? How does it make life easier, better or more exciting for your customers? How do you touch lives? Your business purpose needs to answer these questions in order that people can engage with it. Leaders need to embed and weave that meaning through every communication channel available – internally and externally.

2. Connection

As human beings we are driven by connection – the need to belong. That connection deepens the more we open up and share our personal stories, the moments of vulnerability that shape us, and our hopes for the future. Connection is made when groups of people come together to face a challenge, and when hard-earned dreams are realised, like a successful project completing or a new product launching. Connection – and therefore loyalty, engagement etc. – to the company stems from the extent to which each person is treated as a human being, and feels valued and respected for their contribution to the wider whole.

Leaders are the bridge that connect the company mission and purpose with each individual’s hopes, dreams and aspirations.

3. Attention

Nothing is worse than being with someone who plainly doesn’t have time for you, or who is multi-tasking rather than giving you their full attention. Yet it seems to be common – one coachee recently shared that her manager wanted to have their 1 to 1 meeting over the phone, during which time he was checking in at the airport. With the advent of social networks, instant messaging and real-time information, time feels like the most precious resource in business today. Today it is both attention management and time management that is a challenge. Leaders need to become more self-aware, aware of where their attention is being diverted and the impact this can have on others. They need to develop presence.

It is not a surprise that mindfulness has become so popular – because it works. It’s amazing how long a minute can feel when we are fully present, or how productive a meeting can be when everyone in the room is fully present – not looking at their phones or thinking about the next meeting.

To be human is to feel fully alive and connected – and presence is a much-needed quality in today’s corporate world.

There is a lot of talk about resilience training to combat stress in the workplace, and countless engagement initiatives to attract and retain talent. But all seem to lose sight of this fundamental truth – as human beings we want to love and be loved – in all areas of our lives. That means we want to know that we are making a difference to others, that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves and that we are valued for our contribution, without it having a detrimental effect on other areas of our lives. As long as we continue to avoid this challenge, engagement is the holy grail many companies will fail to attain.

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