Engagement is the hot leadership strategy these days. On some subliminal level, we know what it means. But on a practical level, it is much more difficult to define. It is like so many ideas during this time of epic transition in society. Abstractions are easier to understand that actual actions.
I'm involved in a project with the Presbyterian Churches (PCUSA) in North Carolina to raise money for our ministries on college and university campuses. It is more than a fund raising project. It is an engagement one, as we engage all segments, levels and congregations of the North Carolina Presbyterian world to support our work with students, faculty and university administrators.As we have worked through the various strategies that we need to successfully meet our financial goals, we are at the same time affecting change in people's perceptions and actions. This is very much what engagement means in its current use.
Our engagement strategy is built around actions that we are asking people and their churches to take. In this sense engagement, isn't just marketing, but encouragement to action. The emphasis on action, rather engagement, is because engagement is an ambiguous term. It can mean only mental engagement. And ultimately that sort of engagement does not produce results. Actions builds confidence, and confidence builds strength. So the goal of any engagement process should be more people participating, action, doing, taking initiative in three specific areas that we have identified as critical to our success.
We are focused on three types of actions: Connection, Communication and Contribution. If we succeed in increasing the level of connection, communication and contribution, then our campaign will be successful. This is true for any organization.
The simple idea that lies behind connecting, communicating and contributing is the importance of personal initiative. If you want people to be engaged, then they have to take initiative. When their initiative is focused on making connections with people, communicating their mission in terms of a story, and intentionally and strategically contributing by making a difference that matters, then engagement ceases to be a cool abstract business idea, and a living reality within your organization.
I cannot emphasize enough that the key is creating an environment where people feel free to take initiative to connect, communicate and contribute. If there is fear or too many boundaries to cross or obstacles to overcome, then they won't.
What does it mean to Connect, Communicate and Contribute?
Here's a starting point for each.
We all move through our lives in relationships with others. Some people are family, others are friends, many are colleagues and the vast majority are people who are nameless faces that we pass by along our life's journey.
There are three keys to connection.
The first key is that through our connections we open ourselves up to a broader, more diverse context. The perspective we gain helps us to better understand who we are and how we fit in the social and organizational settings where we live and work.
The second key is our connecting strengthens community. When I introduce one person to another, the opportunities that can grow from that connection far out weight the ones we have without those connections. Living in isolation, which is not the same as being an introvert, weakens the institutions that society depends upon for its strength.
The third key is that when we connect, we are placing ourselves in a relationship of potential mutuality of contribution. I can pinpoint people with whom I connect with around the world for whom our mutual support for one another is an important foundation strength for our lives. We don't connect just to receive something from someone, but also to give in mutual benefit.
With the growth of social media, everyone is a communicator. However, what do we mean by communication?
The most common fallacy regarding communication is that it is about what I communicate to others. It is the old model of information distribution as communication.
The kind of communication that matters, that engages people to participate and contribute, is one that is more like a conversation. It is a two exchange, rather than simply a one-way download of my opinion.
The real purpose behind communication is to establish a connection that builds an environment of respect, trust, commitment, and contribution. This produces real conversations that matter. This is how communication becomes genuine engagement.
I have seen so many organizations during my professional career that were languishing because there was no spirit of contribution.By this I mean, the people who were the organization did not see themselves as the owners of its mission. They were employees hired to do a job.
A culture of contribution is built upon a foundation of appreciation and thanks.
Typically, people see thanks as a response to a gift of some kind. As a response, it is less an act of initiative, though deciding to write a note, rather than sending an email, is a greater act of initiative because the effort and cost are more.
The Five Actions of Gratitude are acts of personal initiative. They are intentional and strategic. They are acts of mutuality that provide meaning and reality to the connections that we've made. Let's take a quick look at each to understand their function as sources of contribution. I've written more extensively about this under the title, The Stewardship of Gratitude.
Say Thanks: Too often saying thanks is a way we close a conversation. That is not what this is. Instead, we are expressing a perspective that identifies how the connection to someone, group or community has made a difference to them. Our giving of thanks contributes to the strengthening of the ties that bind a social or organizational setting together. I've heard it said that Saying Thanks is the "lubrication" that greases the wheels of society, making them run smoothly. This is part of its contribution.
Give Back: When we give back in service, we are giving, contributing to a person, an organization or a community that has given to us. This is the heart of what we know as volunteerism and philanthropy. For many people, this is where our most significant contributions are made.
Make Welcome: This act of hospitality, or Hostmanship as Jan Gunnarsson suggests, creates an environment of openness, inviting people to join as participants who give, create, contribute their gifts and talent. Openness and hostmanship are not automatic actions. They are intentional actions of initiative that create the opportunity for an organization to develop a culture of open contribution. Where there is openness to contribute, there is engagement.
Honor Others: When we practice honor, we elevate the human connection that exists in an organization or a community. I cannot think of an more important contribution than to create an environment where each person is honored with respect and thanks for the contributions that they make. Do this, and the motivation to contribute will grow.
Create Goodness: If we were to live to create goodness, we'd spend our days as contributors, and less as passive recipients of others creative goodness. My vision of this is to see an organization where every single employee take personal initiative to create goodness that makes a difference that matters. To do this means that we'd face all those obstacles and cultrual barriers to engagement, and create a place where people can discover a fulfilling life of contribution as creators of goodness.
Strategic Connection, Communication and Contribution
These actions of personal initiative are not tactics for failing systems to buffer themselves against the harshness of a declining situaiton. Instead,these are strategies of change that help leaders and their organizations make the necessary transition from the organizational forms of the past into those that emerging. These are strategies of engagement because that create a different social environment for people.
At some fundamental level, we'd have to address the organization's structure to determine to what extent it can support a growing environment of connection, communication and contribution. This is the most difficult question because are embedded forms that are resistant to change. They do not adapt well to creative forces from outside of their own control. Yet, the engagement are identifying with these three strategies is an intentional relinquishing of control so that people are free to create their own ways of contributing.
In this sense, leadership shifts from a control mandate to a facilitating, equipping and visioning one. Leaders create an environment of openness so that personal intiative can create new structures for contribution. As a result, leaders become the keep and nurturer of the values of the company. They are constantly reminding everyone of these values of personal initiative, creativity and contribution. They are protective of this openness that produces engagement.
The future belongs to those people who can create an organizational and community environment where personal initiative to connect, communication and contribute becomes the culture. When we do this, engagement transitions from being the hot topic of the moment to the reality that we find live with every day.