Two modes of Engagement

by
Mark Strom

Have you ever witnessed the ‘roll-out’ or ‘cascading’ of a cultural change or employee engagement initiative? Maybe you have led such programs, or been on the receiving end of them.

I remember a CEO presenting fifty-five slides covering vision, mission, values, principles, and who-knows-what-else with the aim of engaging his top 100 managers in changing the culture of the business. Each manager then received their own slide pack to repeat the presentation further down, and so on. Nothing changed, at least not for the better.

I want to suggest why such programs don’t work, and how we might rethink engagement. I’m building on the idea of two roads of thinking.

Our firm is called 2nd Road after a play on something Aristotle said. The philosopher who is famous for framing the rules of logic, also understood the limitations of logic as a “path to truth.” Aristotle went on to frame what we might call a ‘second road’ of enquiry:

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The distinction between the 1st and 2nd road isn’t absolute. Everyday we experience a blend of the two modes of thinking in our work and interaction with others.

The ‘first road’ has produced the astonishing accomplishments of engineering, medicine and so much more. It used to take a year to get a message across the world; now it takes seconds. People used to die from what we can treat with a pill. [Sadly, in many places people do still die: equity hasn’t always followed technology.]

But the first road without the second road has also produced mindless bureaucracies and faceless systems, yoking employees into modes of work and interaction that stifle creativity and innovation and that ultimately alienate them. It is the thinking behind employee engagement programs like my example above.

This is where my eight Cs come in: four that help explain why so many programs don’t work; and four to help us foster real engagement. Each follows one of the two roads. Note the contrasts left and right, and up and down:

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When I expect certainty, a “tram-track” logic kicks in. If I assume I’ve gained certainty, then arrogance can take over. Or if I know I haven’t gained certainty, then fear can take over. I need to fake it. Either way, I’m convinced I need to command the ship to ensure control. And so I communicate the messages that I have made up and decided everyone needs to hear.

The world of organisational management and analysis is built on the 1st road logic of certainty and autonomy. Managers assemble data, make plans, and implement them expecting that the world will follow suit, and of course it never does. A purely 1st road approach neglects the human dimension.

The difficult truth is that we can’t have certainty, and we never were autonomous. But we can act with an appropriate level of confidence in the face of the unknown. Personally, I’d rather have a proper collegial confidence than an illusory autonomous certainty any day.

So there is another path and it runs in the other direction. It starts with the people. And, no surprises, it starts by moving from communication to conversation:

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Once again, communication and conversation both have their place. On the first road, we tell people what we understand: we communicate. On the second, we engage them in creating new understanding: we converse. A whole different story unfolds from here.

Leadership based on conversation enables people to find their unique voices, and that makes new understanding possible. This is a doorway to co-designing new futures; one sensible ‘owned’ initiative after another. And that’s how community forms: not compliance to generic statements of vision, mission and values, but engagement in initiatives that call out people’s intent, brilliance, and excellence.

A community of people will find confidence to engage when they know they are ‘author-ised’ to write their own stories within a bigger story that they themselves are shaping by conversation and co-design.

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