Who engages the engagers?

In an earlier post,  I wrote about the importance of your employees caring about what they do – not just for discretionary effort, but some effort of ANY kind.  What I didn’t really talk about was whether or not YOU as a leader care,  and whether or not someone cares if you care.

It’s tough to be a leader/manager/boss.  The Man isn’t supposed to get tired or frustrated, and isn’t supposed to want to throw his hands in the air and say, “To hell with this.  Screw you guys…I’m going home.”  No, when you’re the Head Honcho, you are expected to maintain a level of polished professionalism and be a pillar of inspiration for your people in times of stress and woe.  After all, your ability to stay focused and on message in the good times and the bad is why you get paid the big bucks and why you have a “World’s Greatest Boss” mug on your desk.  As the boss, you are gifted with the remarkable talent of letting stress and disillusionment pass over you without any of it sticking on your Teflon-coated psyche.

Well, that’s a bunch of crap.  You and I both know that leaders can often hit burnout long before their employees do.  This is due to a number of factors:

  • The leaders know more about what’s going on than the average employee (and sometimes the news isn’t good)
  • The leaders are keeping the crazies at bay so the team can get some actual work done
  • The leaders ARE working hard to keep the team motivated and inspired during down times (and it’s really exhausting)

In some ways, it’s like being a secret agent (stick with me here).  Like a spy, leaders must compartmentalize their professional existence – there’s one persona for peers, there’s another for dealing with the boss, there’s another for handling stakeholders, and still another for interacting with employees.  Leaders must filter their communication for each audience, ensuring they are creating the right context and providing the appropriate information at the right time.  It’s no wonder that some leaders start to feel detached.

Yup. Cheesy Star Trek reference – “Engage.” What did you expect? Oh, and the title of this post is based on a ST:TNG episode. So there.

Engagement studies continue to support that the longer an employee/leader is with the company, the higher the engagement level.  They also suggest that those in leadership positions tend to be more engaged than those in lower levels (presumably because they have more visibility and autonomy).  However, when you look at the data, you also see that while engagement goes up, the number of people who are classified as “crash and burn” stays pretty constant.  This is worrisome, since we DO look to our leaders as voices of reason, sanity and stability when things go south.

I’ve talked before in passing about the fact that as you ascend in an organization, you tend to get less feedback and support.  This is particularly true when it comes to keeping you, the leader, engaged.  There seems to be this unspoken rule that once you’ve joined the management ranks, you no longer need someone else to help recharge your batteries – we gave you a promotion…it’s YOUR job to stay committed.

So what’s a disillusioned, disengaged leader to do?  A few suggestions:

  • Don’t let work be your only identity: Some leaders burn out because they make The Job their everything.  It’s not.  Find a hobby that lets you burn off some steam.  Exercise.  Take up knitting.  Be a LARP-er.  Whatever floats your boat.
  • Find an “engagement buddy”: There’s a good chance other leaders are feeling the same way you are and just need someone to talk to about it.  Find a trusted peer who knows you well enough to call you on your bullshit when you get whiny, and who you feel comfortable calling out when THEY get whiny.  I know from personal experience that this support system can get you through some really awful situations.
  • Regularly assess your engagement levels: Engagement isn’t an on/off switch.  it’s a continuum that changes often…sometimes minute to minute.  There are a lot of scales you can use to help assess where you are on that engagement continuum (seriously – Google it).  Pick one that works for you and self-monitor.  Neuroscience tells us that labeling a feeling or emotion helps us handle it better.  Label your engagement level so you can deal with it.
  • Talk to your boss: This suggestion isn’t for everyone, but hopefully you have the benefit of a leader who will listen to you when you have an issue like this.  Now, this isn’t a conversation that starts with you plopping your butt down in the chair and saying, “I HATE MY JOB.”  That probably won’t go well.  Start the conversation by stating that your goal is to continue to add value to the organization and that you’re concerned that you may be losing a little bit of that drive and need some feedback on how things are going.  Depending on your relationship, you might even share your engagement continuum scale, share where you see yourself more often than not, and then BE SOLUTION FOCUSED.  Come with some ideas on how you might re-engage, and share what you need from your leader.
  • Decide if it’s worth it: If your engagement levels are constantly in the “about to go postal” range, AND you aren’t getting the support you need, AND you see no end in sight…it may be time for you to decide whether or not you’re in the right role and/or right company.

No one said being a leader was going to be easy (hence the name of this blog).  So much of what leaders do must be intrinsically motivated, and it’s easy to forget to self-monitor your own state of engagement.  Take some time to keep the batteries charged – because if YOU’RE not engaged, your team will definitely see it.

What suggestions do you have for keeping yourself engaged?  Share in the comments below!

Everything rustles… (how fear drives your people)

The impact of fear on the workplace typically comes from allegations of a hostile work environment, inappropriate manager behavior, too much stick and not enough carrot, etc. And yes, fear DOES impact the workplace in all those ways. What I want to talk about is the everyday impact fear has on the actions and decisions of managers and employees alike. It’s like death by a thousand cuts – one doesn’t take you down, but a whole lot of them over time is bound to beat you.

The title of this post comes from a quote from Sophocles (seems like a smart guy, so I am okay quoting him):

To him who is in fear everything rustles.

Think about all the rustling going on in your company. There’s a closed door meeting (rustle). The boss isn’t returning my calls (rustle). That person is getting more attention in the staff meeting (rustle). All of this fear is destroying your culture and creating behaviors driven by the wrong thing.  I’ve worked in environments where fear was a seen as a  “motivator” that should be used, and I’ve seen the impact it has on the company – from turnover, to recruiting, to business results, to culture.  It ain’t pretty.

afraidWhen actions are driven by fear rather than thought, you end up with dysfunction.  It’s easier to question motives and suspect a hidden agenda.  A leader’s primary purpose (to make the company successful) is discarded, replaced by a “cover my ass” mentality.  We’ve all seen it – hell, we’ve all probably fallen prey to it at one time or another.  Recognizing fear can be easy – overcoming it is the tricky part.

In his excellent book Your Brain At Work, David Rock uses the SCARF model to help illustrate what drives people either toward or away from a situation, and I like to use it to show how fear becomes the driver in all 5 areas:

  • S stands for status, your relative importance to others.  
    Fear of losing status can cause incredibly awful decision-making, like covering up mistakes, failing to develop their people (they might be better than I am!), forming inappropriate “alliances” amongst their peers, or worse – burying corporate malfeasance.
  • C  stands for certainty, the ability to predict the future.
    This is the reason people tend to run away from change – the fear of the unknown.  Fear driven by a need for certainty is what drives a lot of the gossip and “story-telling” seen in organizations, because people combat lack of certainty by creating a reality that they think they know.  Worse still is when decisions are based on the new reality (and you know it happens every day).
  • A stands for autonomy, which provides a sense of control over events.
    Fear in this area manifests in passive-aggressive behavior – people are afraid they don’t have control so they find a way to get it back, typically by NOT doing something you’ve asked them to do.  Occasionally fear causes people to act first, collaborate second because they fear that their choice in the matter will be taken away from them.
  • R stands for relatedness, or a sense of safety with others (think friend or foe).  
    Trust (or lack thereof) is a major cause of fearful behavior in business – I’m afraid I can’t trust you, so I don’t dare speak up/collaborate/engage in healthy debate/be authentic/you name it.  People are also afraid that they won’t be part of the “in crowd”, that they’ll be on the outside looking in.  This can drive inauthentic relationships, and cause people to act “fake” for the sake of fitting in.
  • F stands for fairness, which (no surprise) relates to the perception of fair exchanges between people.
    Leaders loooooove it when people talk about fairness (darn it, where’s that sarcasm font???).  As it relates to fear, though – a perceived lack of fairness in a situation causes people to fear that they’re in trouble, or they aren’t valued.  This can lead to active disengagement, undermining the success of others, or justifying lying/stealing because “the company owes me”.  They are afraid they aren’t getting “what’s fair.”

So start paying attention to what you’re seeing in your organization and see if fear is driving behaviors you don’t like.  And if fear is the “preferred” method of leadership, use SCARF to help address the issues.  Quiet the rustling in your world.

One last geek quote (but it’s a good one from Dune):

 Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

What examples of fear have you seen in your organization?  Share below!