Present and Engaged: It’s about Trust, Stupid

My workplace has recently gone through a lot of changes. The old guard leave, the new guard arrive, they want to make their mark, set their tone, achieve their objectives. Of course, you say.

I’ve watched successive changes of the guard at my place of employment. They come, they go, and at the coal face nothing much changes. They throw welcome parties, leaving parties, get to know you drinks parties. They ‘engage’ with the plebs. And hell, we like the free alcohol.

They establish new hierarchies, produce new instruments with which to measure our efficiency, our commitment, our ‘engagement’.  We learn the new position titles, attend the workshops on how to conform to the new management methodology, and complete the forms.

They look at their to-do lists, check off their accomplishments, and leave with a shiny new list of things they did at their last company.

But everything I see tells me that their own engagement and commitment to what we are supposed to be doing  is minimal. They pay it lip-service. Nothing more.

Today I read this article on ‘Engagement’ in the workplace by Matt Grawitch. He describes what he thinks ‘engagement’ means:

Engagement is about feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally present while you are completing your work tasks. Being present means you’re not distracted by worries at home. Being present means you’re not thinking about something else you’d rather be doing.
(A Psychologically Healthy Workplace: Some Things to Keep in Mind, Grawitch, M.)

It’s a good description of engagement, but he goes on to say:

So, if you want to better manage your people, create an environment and a culture that promotes actual work engagement, not just one that promotes friendships or effective management.
(A Psychologically Healthy Workplace: Some Things to Keep in Mind, Grawitch, M.)

He doesn’t go on to say how this is achieved in the article, and that would definitely be something worth reading.  I have read a number that propose all sorts of strategies for doing just that.

But subtextually, I think Grawitch absolves management from making an effort. He says “True, your boss can have a positive impact on the engagement experience, but there are many factors that can influence “presence.””

No one I’ve come across actually mentions the one thing that makes ‘engagement’ possible in any relationship. That makes people desire to be present. And it’s really such a complete no-brainer, I can’t believe anyone spends consultancy dollars on it.

Trust. Whether boss/employee, buyer/seller, parent/child, teacher/student, or even lovers, the single most important thing that engenders engagement and nurtures presence is trust.

Here’s the problem. The world is full of management techniques for persuading, manipulating, bullying or threatening employees into getting into line with management’s vision. And the reason it’s often so difficult is that employees don’t trust management not to take care of themselves at the expense of everything else. And this isn’t a mistaken mistrust. It’s a very legitimate one.

Because the reality is all those management consultancy dollars, all those seminars and courses and conferences are really about how to disguise the fact that you don’t actually care, that you’re really taking care of yourself, and that you are going to find ways to use me to fulfill YOUR agenda. Not THE agenda.

I’m an educator. So, if you’re my boss, here is what is going to ensure I am ‘present and engaged’:

  • Make your first priority, your first agenda, mine – to educate students well. Period. Everything else is secondary, and if I don’t KNOW you feel the same way, I’m not going to trust you.
  • Don’t allow your measurement instruments get in the way of our first priority. I understand you need to show numbers, but if the process of gathering them degrades the quality of my work, find a new one.
  • Don’t use processes instead of relationships. KNOW what I do. Don’t read a form and pretend you do.
  • Do not use me to make your CV look better. Your CV will look just great if you help me do what I do best.
  • Measure me by relevant units. Measure me by how well I achieve our common goal. I don’t mind that you have to make it economically feasible as well. I can live with economic realities. What I can’t live with is lies.

If I trust that you care as much as I care about educating students, you need never have a moment’s doubt about my engagement. I’ll be the best employee you ever had.