Gary Hammel recently wrote a piece called ‘Management’s Dirty Little Secret’ on a Wall Street Journal blog. What it really focuses on is the challenge of employee engagement. It’s no easy matter to get into–on my desk at the moment I have a doctoral thesis on what it takes to get high quality engagement in an organisation, and it’s quite thick.
Engagement has three main factors. The first is intent: what does a manager really intend to do with engagement that he or she wishes to proceed with? I’ve seen many managers with the intent that this corporation should do well, but privately their drive has more to do with their personal ambition. I’ve seen many managers who intend to get an open conversation, but personally find it very difficult to raise uncomfortable issues (which is the whole purpose of engagement). Psychological conflicts of intent are the first issue to examine.
The second issue to examine is the reality of context. What does it take, in each context (and by context I mean a specific country unit, team or office) to get a level of engagement with a broader issue (such as achieving corporate goals) when in fact the experience of those people in that context is that they are permanently suspicious of the corporate centre? Often people have good reason to be suspicious–the corporate centre might decide to cuts costs on percentage basis across the board, without looking at the particular attributes of each different department or divisional unit within the organisation. And so context, next to intent, is going to be a prime factor in engagement effectiveness.
The final issue is skill. Busy managers want to be something of a role model to build a harmonious relationship with their direct reports. But how can they do this when in fact one of the manager’s roles is to constantly judge performance? Managers are held accountable for that judgement of performance, which means they are probably going to give back a considerable amount of negative feedback on people’s performances, and that’s the very thing that managers (and direct reports) fear. It takes skill to be a good boss.
Engagement is a problem; it’s not a dirty secret — good engagement is a demanding challenge. It requires unique skills, and often management needs to rise to the occasion. I think the reason that so many people view engagement (or the lack of it) as a negative is that they’ve not appreciated just how clever and subtle management need to be in order to enter into high-quality engagement. Once that appreciation is there, I don’t think you will see people using words like ‘dirty, little, secret’ to describe engagement–instead you’ll get ‘challenge, demanding, and highly capable.’