One Simple Behavior to Elevate Employee Engagement

There is a growing recognition of the close relationship between an organization’s performance and its employee engagement.  Many observers share a concern that employee engagement is in decline; which is directly affecting how an organization internally and externally meets its obligations.  There is particular concern regarding Millennials.  (For an overview of this age group read The Millennials.)

This article describes one specific management behavior that can elevate engagement.

In a recent article Arthur Lerner, Principal at Arthur Lerner Associates, has done a nice job of describing a hierarchy of the levels of engagement.  He writes:

“This isn’t precisely what Senge et al wrote in The Fifth Discipline, but close and slightly expanded. (The original had four types of compliance – grudging, formal, ‘regular’, and genuine, and require comment to differentiate.  I’ve substituted the words below, which includes adding in coercion as the lowest level, probably needing a line above it because it connotes no willingness.)

It was written well before the current passion for engagement, and has served well in my experience to differentiate some of what others have pointed to in this discussion already.  It presumes leader-follower/hierarchical relationship. Read the following from bottom up:


From the bottom, each higher stage indicates a greater degree in the willingness to subordinate to do what a leader (organization) wants, in particular via greater ‘buy-in’ to the vision and perhaps the goals that underlay what is asked. . .  As it stands, with no explanation, it does not include ways to attain the stages in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic rewards, etc.  The line between volunteering and being committed indicates an internal shift from doing – even enthusiastically – what the ‘other wants’ to taking on internal ownership for the behavior or result desired.  Enrolled connotes going beyond commitment in that someone who is enrolled so fully cares about and wants to see the success that s/he will carry forth even in the absence of a prior leader of the effort.  One could collapse some of the stages as shown, but the drift is definite, and the line is a distinctive qualitative divider.  I won’t go into connections between the stages and progression between them and issues of motivation, enthusiasm, engagement etc. but they are many.”

I like this hierarchy; we can all recognize the levels.  But how do we make changes that move engagement up the hierarchy?  What are the work practices and manager behaviors that can move the needle?

One dimension that is both practical and observable is the character of the dialog that’s going on between the parties.  For the bottom five levels (Coerced through Supportive) the conversation is top-down.  In fact, there is no real dialog at all.  The manager-leader simply tells the team members what they must do.  This ranges from a direct order, with consequences, to a stated need.  The ‘demand’ or assignment changes in style (i.e. harsh direct order to kindly assignment) but not in character.  “I need this done by you by this date”.  It’s a statement.

At the Volunteering level there is a fundamentally different type of conversation.  At this level and for the first time, an actual two-way person-to-person or manager-to-employee dialog occurs.  The difference is the manager asks a question rather than making a statement (e.g. “I need this done, which one of you can get it done?”)  The performer, aware of the need, responds with an explicit agreement to fill the need.  Even though the dialog is still a bit ‘tilted’ in favor of what the manager wants, there is at least an opening for a response to express willingness by the performer.

Something very different happens when moving up to the Committed level.  To get to this level, there must be a genuine dialog between two individuals, more or less on equal footing, where the performer is making an explicit agreement to deliver.  The key change is that this conversation starts with a request (e.g. “Can you complete this project or task by Friday?”) versus beginning with a statement.

What follows is equally important.  The performer has the ability to respond by saying yes, no or by proposing an alternate completion date.  They are able to negotiate what they are able to successfully complete by a specific deadline or make a counter-offer to the request.  Most importantly, with the real opportunity to negotiate, they make a commitment (e.g. “I will get this done for you by next Monday.”).  This statement expressing “ownership” by the performer is the hallmark of the jump to the Committed level in the hierarchy of engagement.

The top level in the hierarchy is Enrolled.  At this stage, the engagement is spontaneous, even anticipatory.  As with the other levels, this one is also characterized by a certain type of dialog.  This level is characterized not by requests from the manager, but by offers from the performers; e.g. “I understand what needs to be done, have the time, resources, and enthusiasm to get it done, and therefore I am making an offer to do it.”).  Again, the performer is engaged in a negotiation with the manager-customer that results in a clear commitment for delivery.

While I readily grant the substantial over-simplification of a complex issue, managers who want to increase engagement can begin by changing one thing – the character of the dialog with the performer(s).  Changing statements to requests is a good first start.  This simple step releases the power of the performer to respond at a higher level of engagement.



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