Way back in 1977 I was working for a large international organization in an entry-level labour position. I was young and energetic, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my life. After months of working afternoon and midnight shifts, I began to understand the business. I often thought of what we did and how it could be done differently to improve our overall performance. One night I was struggling with an issue and realized that if we made some changes to our work processes, we could actually save a good deal of time. With the help of a good friend who was a bit older, wiser and clearly more educated (he had an MBA), I developed a simplified business plan that outlined what I was seeing and detailed a few suggestions I was convinced would have a significant, positive impact on the organization’s overall financial results.
Once my plan was developed, I made an appointment to see my boss—a middle-aged man who had worked with the company for 12 to 15 years and was entrenched in his ways. I’ll never forget my meeting with him. I was nervous and excited, and just knew he was going to love my ideas.
I walked into his office at 9:20 in the morning (he worked the day shift, of course) beaming and full of confidence. I walked out less than 10 minutes later, after telling him he was an idiot and quitting my job.
What happened in those 10 minutes? I outlined my plan, building what I believed was a fairly strong case that covered the pros and cons of what I was proposing in just enough detail to make the point and get a conversation started. I recall being very eager to get through the presentation so that I could hear what he had to say. When I finished, he leaned back in his big fancy chair, paused for about 10 seconds, picked up my papers, looked in my eyes and with a firm voice offered a single sentence that turned me off so quickly I barely remember anything else he said: “You know, Ken, we hired you to do a job for us. We didn’t hire you to think!”
Those words have influenced me ever since. I went from fully engaged to completely disengaged in the time it took a manager to say 18 words.
Today’s managers and supervisors are pressed for time
Through my work I have come to understand that engagement is a complex cultural discipline made possible through the simplest day-to-day actions of the people in our organizations. My manager in 1977 was actually not much different from those I have worked with and assisted over the years; he was hired and then promoted based on his technical knowledge and length of time with the company. Likewise, I sense that back then I was no different than the majority of people in today’s workplace. I was hired to do a job and wanted to do it to the best of my ability. I wanted to learn, grow, and contribute, and I wanted to come to work each day knowing I was going to enjoy my eight-hour shift alongside my workmates.
If there is a difference, it lies in the fact that in 1977, things moved a little slower than they do today. My manager seemed to have a lot of time on his hands. The managers and supervisors I work with now don’t have any extra time. In fact, they often stay in the office well beyond the normal eight-hour shift just to stay on top of things. And, as the critical cog in the middle of the engagement wheel, they are being asked to do even more.
Looking back at what I have learned over the years from front-line supervisors and managers, some key themes emerge that demand our attention:
- For the most part, managers and supervisors have indicated that while they have some understanding of engagement, they don’t truly understand it and why it deserves their attention.
- Managers and supervisors don’t believe they have the skills and know-how to “do it” and don’t know how to move from where they are now to where they feel the company and their teams need them to be.
- A good number are not sure if they themselves are engaged—but many believe they are either burned out or very close to being burned out.
- An equally good number fear that if they focus on engagement, productivity or customer service efforts will fall off, and they will be held accountable for that.
- They universally believe that they do not have time to do what needs to be done.
So what’s the solution?
Over the past few months, I took the opportunity to sit down with a number of supervisors and managers in one-on-one conversations and small focus groups to explore this very question. In planning for these conversations, I held on to two beliefs:
- We need to accept the fact that managers’ time issues are real and must be acknowledged.
- Through meaningful and focused conversation, they will be able to articulate what they need to make it all work.
From these conversations came some key requirements for helping managers improve engagement:
- Offer training, support and tools that are of clear and immediate value—or in the words of one supervisor, “Stuff I can do and use on the shop floor with little preparation or added effort.” The tools and actions they spoke of generally fell into one of three categories:
- Things that can be done in a minute or less
- Things that may take five to 10 minutes
- Things that can be worked toward over a longer period of time
- Keep training sessions to less than two hours and make them experiential and engaging.
- Help them look at a few of the things they do already that could easily be reworked to stimulate engagement (e.g., regular staff meetings).
- Build basic levels of understanding about engagement with a focus on what it is and why it’s important, and on three or four core levels of engagement they can focus on.
- Help them understand the critical discussions they ultimately need to have with their team members and what to do with what they learn through those discussions. (see my article on 4 Critical Conversations)
Organizations must recognize the time stress managers and supervisors experience in today’s fast-paced world of business when making plans for enhancing engagement. This time stress is real, and can make even the simplest change in how managers and supervisors engage with employees feel like an unwelcome burden. By communicating the value of a fully engaged workforce and providing the tools and actions they need to make it work, your managers and supervisors can instead see the opportunity to create positive change.
- Managers and Employee Engagement: 4 Critical Conversations (kenmilloy.wordpress.com)
- Reinforce Behaviours & Foster Engagement with Planned Spontenaiety (kenmilloy.wordpress.com)
- See Soft Skill Training and Foundation Building by Guy Farmer on his Unconventional Training blog