Control Is the Enemy of Engagement

“Engagement” has become a management buzzword. Companies want to increase employee engagement to enhance efficiency and work output while reducing et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… And as is common, such management speak attempts to increase engagement as a variable, one of many variables that, if you can get them just right, will give your company the push it needs to succeed.

But this approach to engagement is self-defeating because it succumbs to the desire for control. It’s ultimately a way that leaders are attempting to control their subordinates. And control is the enemy of engagement.

Let’s unpack this assertion a bit.

“Engagement” is a pseudo-psychological term that management-speakers use to isolate the idea that employees care about what they’re doing. It’s a term that cuts out individuality from both the subject and object to make it into something one-dimensional that can be increased or decreased. But you can’t isolate the concept of “caring” from either the subject that is doing the caring, or the object about which the subject cares. So instead of “engagement,” let’s use the more everyday “care.”

The term “control” is also an overly specific term that suggests micromanaging. But the idea is much broader, something that we often think of negatively as “power.” Consider the villains in The Lord of the Rings, or dictators like Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-un. Are such characters content to oversee, to promote, to protect, to encourage? Or do people who consolidate power want to control?

So I will amend my assertion: from the sterile “control is the enemy of engagement” to: “Consolidating power prevents people from caring.”

A lot of leaders aren’t going to like where this is going. You may be the kind that wants to create the experience of “engagement” so that you can have more control over your organization–so that you can better consolidate power and make the organization do what you want.

But if you are seeking to increase engagement–if you want your people to care–then you are going to have to give up control. That doesn’t mean abandoning your position as a leader, but it does mean letting your organization lead you as much as you lead it.

You will lead your organization with purpose, not with strategy. Strategy is a specific outline for what you’re going to do–the “what” and the “how.” For pretty much everyone outside the executive level, strategy doesn’t matter; it just means I should anticipate some annoying changes to the work I have to do. Purpose, on the other hand, is a belief in who we are and who we want to be. It’s the “why” that drives what we do and how we do it. Most importantly, it’s something in which everyone can participate, and in which people choose to participate. You can order people to follow a strategy, but you have to convince them to be part of a purpose. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” You need to articulate your vision simply and succinctly and intuitively, and then you need to teach the people following you to want that vision.

Your organization will lead you in terms of strategy and structure. Rather than doing analysis and picking up the latest business books to determine what your organization needs to do, let your organization tell you what it needs. Just like your body will tell you what to eat and how hard to exercise once you’ve learned to listen to it, your organization will offer its aches and its needs once you’ve learned to hear. If your organization is operating in service of the purpose you’ve articulated, you will need to make yourself a servant in turn to your organization’s needs.

I’ve given an expansive version of the process over the past few paragraphs, but all of this should come together as something instinctive. It should pour out of you: “I’m excited to do [vision] with you because [purpose]! What can I do to help you achieve it?” This kind of enthusiasm, humility, and service-mindset from a leader is infectious. If your people are part of the organization because they want to be, and they believe in what your organization is doing and your vision for its future, they will have a tendency to pick up on your enthusiasm and your service attitude. And the more people are serving one another to accomplish something they care about together, rather than trying to control one another over competing visions, the more successful your organization will be.

That’s the essence of the dichotomy of “engagement”–caring about what you’re doing–versus “control”–struggling for power.

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