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My Top 5 Tips for Successful Engagement

Sonja Allen,

4th March, 2024

 

Who agrees that team engagement is one of the key drivers that will make or break an organisation’s success? I hazard a guess and I’ll say most of you.

 

Employee engagement is one of the most referenced topics in conversations with my clients. It’s on the agenda of every organisation I’ve seen, often part of their values and embedded in their strategy. Regardless, it often remains an aspiration or something that is seen in “pockets of greatness” rather than a sustainable, everyday reality.

 

Employee engagement as a concept & its importance made its first appearance in mainstream management theory in the 1990s. That was 34 years ago! 34 years of knowing that to achieve excellence, deploy strategy, deliver our ambition, and sustain the success we must “get good” at engagement; so, why aren’t we reliably, consistently, and intrinsically great at it as organisations? And as leaders? What can we do to get better?

 

Here’s my personal top 5 engagement accelerators:

 

Be curiousask better questions and learn to listen without a call to action.

 

You expected me to start with purpose, didn’t you? Well, I won’t. Before we get into purpose, which is about stuff, we should start with ourselves and our ability to create meaningful connections, which is about people.

Engagement, in an organisational context, means that our people connect with the important stuff in our business. In order to drive engagement in our organisation we must as leaders therefore connect with our people first.

 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines curiosity as a strong desire to know or learn something. The expression of the desire to learn in human interaction is in the quality of the questions we ask and in our ability to listen without making what we hear about ourselves; I listen to get to know YOU, as opposed to trying to figure out what I think about what you are saying or if there’s an action in there for me.

 

Really good questions typically start open and then become more specific. Really good listeners often play back what they hear and will ask follow-up questions on that. Really good questions are more often Why, What, and How questions. Really good listening allows for silence because I am more curious about what you have to say after you had time to think about it than fazed by what’s on my mind.

 

An easy trick to start developing your curiosity and listening to create a meaningful connection is by starting a conversation with “Tell me about…” and following with a “Tell me more!” rather than an “I think.”

 

Make it about purposemobilising contextual communities who care.

 

Well, it had to feature, didn’t it? Once we connect with each other, we need to connect with the things that we want to achieve together. We need to form communities around meaningful contexts, and we must all care about achieving them together.

 

From a leadership perspective the corresponding skill is storytelling – how do you tell your story so clearly and cohesively that it allows people to connect to it? See it, feel it, envision it & believe it is achievable?

When we choose to support a purpose, there is an emotional component to that. Great storytelling is what allows organisations and leaders to tap into emotion & make that emotional connection.

 

A great story speaks of outcomes over outputs. Outputs are a thing that must of course be controlled and improved in the realm of management systems but can in organisational life feature in clunky and almost always not very successful attempts to create the link between their team and their purpose.

 

An example: I am an operator working in a value stream that produces chemotherapy. The output will be X units to Y quality standard in Z time. The outcome is I am saving lives.

Which do you think lends itself better to engage me in our purpose?

 

Co-createkeep your biases in check.

 

I sometimes say building the skill of collaboration and co-creation starts with striking the phrase “Yeah, but…” from your vocabulary.

Why? Because we are endlessly biased beings. We often assume that our thinking is more right than others’ thinking. We often assume that when we disagree, we are right and the other person is wrong.

 

In the context of engagement, this is a huge blocker. People need to be involved in shaping their work, they need to have an input into how their work is done, and how it is changed and improved to fully connect and engage. And they need to feel safe to do so. Co-creation breeds ownership. Ownership is the deepest expression of engagement.

 

Successful co-creation starts with the belief that we will do better when we do it together. It is expressed in our curiosity and the corresponding skills which I already described above. It is demonstrated by losing the self-importance of “I” and “me” language, the finger-pointing of “they” and “them” when talking about others in our organisation and rigorously adopting “we” and “us” language, behaviours, and mindset.

 

Addressing our biases is the hardest thing we must learn as leaders. But to truly enable a culture of engagement, co-creation is a must and we must therefore become aware of the risk our biases pose to it. If you want to start the process of identifying and addressing your biases, here are a couple of useful questions to ask yourself:

 

  • What core beliefs do I hold?
  • How might these beliefs limit or enable me and my colleagues at work?

 

Flex itadapt your style to your audience and the situation.

 

Do you remember how a while ago everything became about coaching? And how leaders of pretty much any organisation was shipped off to coaching classes? I always thought of that as a nice, but somewhat misguided sentiment in its simplicity. While coaching is a fantastic skill to have, it is not the be-all and end-all that will engage everyone in the right way all the time.

 

Great, engaging leadership lies in our ability to judge a situation and lead our conversation appropriately to it. I cannot coach you into learning a new IT system. I will need to give you some information about it, it’s much more of a “tell & check if you understood” than a “let me ask you some really good questions!”. If I am trying to engage a senior engineer in problem-solving on an issue in their area, I probably don’t need to mentor them through to the solution.

 

Flexibility of style and situational appropriateness help us get engagement right in any scenario and for any audience and are therefore probably two of the most important skills we must develop if we are looking to shape an engagement culture.

 

Let gowhen engagement becomes empowerment.

 

And for your final trick: Learn to let go. What comes after engagement? Well, the outcome of successful engagement surely is an organisation where everyone is driving towards the same purpose that they feel deeply connected with and are creating together every day.

 

As leaders, we have a different role now. When team engagement has been done well, we reach a tipping point at which we need to step back and entrust.

In order to do that successfully, we must have the right systems and artifacts in place that will allow our engaged teams to deliver, change, and improve largely autonomously as long as what they do is delivering on our defined purpose.

 

What is our job then? Well, simple: While our teams manage the delivery, achievement, and improvement of our system and processes or current strategy & key projects today, we circle back to purpose and shape tomorrow. We are asking ourselves where do we play next? And how do we continue to win together? We set that direction. We write that compelling story. We connect.

 

In short: The cycle of engagement begins anew.

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