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What is engagement and why does it matter?

During my 40 years in management, I steadily held a belief: that when you follow your passion, work will be your hobby and everything will go well; business challenges and personal frustrations can be swiftly overcome; it is easy to consistently make the sound choices that add value to the business; and you achieve happiness and satisfaction. Now, as a consultant, I realize that individual passion is not enough. I was fortunate to operate in a context of shared values, but this is not always the case...

I was fortunate enough to land the job of my dreams at the start of my career and to join a small agile organization that quickly grew to a global presence and sustained market leadership. I learnt a lot and grew together with the company from R&D Manager to Chief Technology Officer; we brought a string of disruptive innovations to the market, forever changing how food is processed, so to bring high quality, affordable and ethically sound products to world consumers, via sustainable and efficient production. I always felt that I was living my personal passion for technological progress, as well as honoring my personal purpose – deeply rooted in my farming background - of “feeding the world”.

I was proud to work for a company that managed within a few decades to gain the trust of worldwide clients, the support of academic and governmental officials (involved in researching, auditing and regulating our technological breakthroughs), the admiration of partners (we pioneered open innovation in our sector) and the respect of competitors (in a catching-up mode, inspired to follow our blue-ocean approach).

Sounds like a fairy tale?

Well, we had our hick-ups and difficulties, of course.

But the important thing was that our business grew so fast that our relatively small organization was almost like an extended family, and we never had to question dedication or engagement; our success was feeding our pride of belonging, and the sum of our individual passions was like a renewable fuel.

Acquisitions and mergers eventually changed the feeling of extended family and we found ourselves in need of learning very fast what other larger organizations had already started to focus on: creating alignment and employees engagement.

This was about the time when I retired and became a consultant, thus getting even more deeply involved with evaluating the decision processes and the organizational challenges of different companies; only to find more examples of how essential it is to create a culture of engagement via an open dialogue.

I am a practical person and I like practical examples. Beyond all the theories about engagement, I like to think of a metaphor, the story of the architect who visits a construction site and is interested in looking at what people are doing, so he asks an electrician who answers “I'm connecting these cables”, then he asks the painter who answers “I am plastering this wall” and then he asks a bricklayer who – with a big smile- answers “I am building a cathedral”.

To me, the bricklayer tells the whole story about engagement; engagement is “feeling appreciated and proud of my personal contribution to something that is important to me and that makes me proud”. When I execute the task of connecting cables, I just do my job. When I look at the bricks in the wall I am building and see the finished cathedral, I am not only happier to do my work, I also go beyond: if the bricks are of poor quality, I talk with the procurement guy and help him to help me find the best quality for the price; I go with him to the supplier if need be. Also, it does not matter if the final look of the cathedral will be post-modern or classical, I do not need to agree upon every detail, I can respect that others have design responsibilities, as long as I know that I have contributed to something that is meaningful to me (and as long as I get to discuss what types of bricks are needed for one type of design or the other; as long as we talk together about the shared intention).

The two reasons that make engagement so important are:

  • Engaged people are happier and happier people are more productive
  • Engaged people take initiative and collaborate, creating efficient synergy

Does it mean that engaged people always agree? Of course not; the opposite! Engaged people argue and fight fiercely, but not to further the ambition of their ego, they do it to further the ambition on behalf of the aligned dream, they want the dream to be as grand as it can be.

So, what happens when (to continue the metaphor) the company that built the cathedral becomes acquired by a company that builds mosques or commercial malls? Will the bricklayer still feel engaged?

Chances are that the initial reaction (like all reactions to change) will provoke a roller coaster of emotions (happy to keep the job, mourning the loss of symbolic value of cathedral-like projects, excited to engage in a new adventure, unsure about required competence, dislike for and rejection of the symbolic value of the new type of construction, anger for how this could possibly happen, search for culprits, cynicism, resentment, etc.)

So this is the moment to encourage an open dialogue, to talk through all these emotions, to vent; and in the dialogue it is usually possible to find a new common platform on which to align (e.g. “a mosque is an important symbol of faith, even if may not be my own”; or “a commercial mall is serving this area, bringing jobs and opportunities”); of course some will not find an alignment and choose to leave, but will do so, not for resentment, but for a clear value clash (like e.g. some of us would prefer not to work for a tobacco or weapon producer, based on personal principles, and as long as we can find work elsewhere).

As a consultant, although my expertise is primarily on “things” (technology and strategy), I see that my best contribution is to help people talk. Your individual passion can support you only up to a point, only within a relatively small homogeneous family-like organization. When things get more complex, people need to share their passion, talk about their vision and values, not only about their goals and tasks, and find a way to align on intention before agreeing on an effective path of action.

Jos is the owner of GrooaNL and a partner in Grooa AS; his passion is food production technology (he has more patents on protein food processing technology that anyone else in the world), his hobby is construction (he is building the GROOA INSPIRIA Leadership Center in his own backyard), his affiliation is to the farming community in his home-place in North Brabant, NL, his ambition is to march the Four-Days of Nijmegen at least 25 consecutive years (he is now at number 24), his clients are innovative entrepreneurs who consult with him on matters of market and technological strategy, organizational processes and talents, and his personal challenge is to coordinate his busy agenda with an equally busy wife (who lives in a different country) and with four grandchildren.

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