The Engagement False Reality Trap – and how to avoid it!

How often do we see it that the results of an employee engagement survey come out, and one of the main messages is that your leaders aren’t engaging enough. Whether this is due to poor communication, not managing performance or giving feedback, or knowing how to recognise or acknowledge their people. The reasons are often varied, and sometimes the survey output isn’t granular enough to let you know where the focus for development needs to be. But that’s not the purpose of this article.

What we often overlook is that results like this create some of the most unnecessary, and unspoken, challenges felt by managers. That is, the immediate pressure to become an engaging leader overnight. The idea that there needs to be immediate improvement is backed up by the rhetoric that comes with the results, the way they are shared (often without thought to framing, context or a supporting plan) and the fact that there will be another engagement survey next year and possibly some pulse surveys in between.

What is the Engagement False Reality Trap?

And in this moment we have created the ‘Engagement False Reality Trap’.
And this is why it’s a false reality:

  • Under normal circumstances, for the average leader, it takes time to build engagement with their people and within their team. How long depends on factors like personality, leadership skills, the desire of the team members to reciprocate on the trust building front, and the extent to which the organisational factors enable all of this with things like clear direction, clear roles and responsibilities, a good capability development strategy. But it takes time. And at the same time we can’t put a timeframe on building trust. That’s the reality.
  • Even the most experienced and inspiring of leaders will not build engagement with everyone. Yet, the implied expectation is that we need to build engagement – with everyone.
  • Based on the above, we know from experience that if a team is starting from a dysfunctional place, it can easily take a year of concerted effort before healthy change is seen. Maybe longer if there are no supporting organisational development strategies or structures in place. And longer again if the higher layers of leadership are dysfunctional themselves and role modelling poor leadership behaviours themselves.

If the above factors are even partly true, and the managers of the groups with the poor results are not great people leaders, then we tend to see the following scenarios play out:

  • Those leaders will try harder, for all the right reasons. But sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, and in these cases the effort to improve can be easily misguided. Often what we see in this case is that the leader tries harder with the same style that led to those results in the first place, reinforcing the unhealthy levels of engagement.
  • They opt out and become fully disengaged themselves due to feeling helpless. They may already know on some level that they aren’t great ‘people’ leaders, so rely on their skills as a very good ‘technical’ leader. The risk is that if they choose to opt out, the technical side of their leadership can be impacted by the overwhelming sense of disengagement
  • A third scenario sometimes plays out, and that is when the manager seeks to find out who ‘nailed’ them in the survey. This is not often seen, but it does exist, driven from a place of lower self-confidence and a lack of wanting to take any sort of ownership for how we arrived here.

How to avoid the ‘Engagement False Reality Trap’?

The premise of the Engagement False Reality Trap is that we place an artificial, 12-month timeframe on how quickly we should be building engagement and trust. So, the choice is simple; either offer meaningful development and support for developing engagement, or manage the expectations around what can realistically be achieved in a 12-month period.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking this can be solved with anything less than genuine intent to want to shift the engagement dial, and a medium to long-term outlook.

Ponte Valle Insight: The Engagement False Reality Trap – and how to avoid it!

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