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  • Writer's pictureDave Caperton

Engagement: Getting Beyond the Jargon

“At the end of the day, it is what it is.”

– Every Manager You Ever Met

When I started working with business organizations back in 1992, I was intimidated by every executive because I didn’t understand three words out of every ten they spoke: “We impact the financial products vertical and leverage learning with bleeding edge and scalable robust solutions but with lots of moving parts.” Huh?

Then one day it occurred to me that they maybe all the jargon is more ritual than meaning, and in a meeting with a C-suite leader I ventured, “Look, what I propose is some outside-the-box thinking as a way of creating learnings and buy-in that will align your core competencies with best practices to take it to the next level because at the end of the day, you can’t boil the ocean.”

She raised an eyebrow and then nodded and said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” I thought, it does? Why? Are you on laughing gas?

The trick, I learned, is to stay current because new jargon is being manufactured all the time by so-called thought-leaders. One of the biggies-and more meaningful than most-is the term “engagement.” For years before the Great Resignation, organizations were talking ad nauseum about engagement. The endless conversation about engagement began in response to disturbing statistics published years ago by the Gallup organization that showed over two-thirds of US workers not fully engaged in their work and almost one-fifth who were undermining the work of the people who were, all at an annual cost of hundreds of billions in lost productivity. The numbers drove an obsession with employee engagement and assessment instruments such as the Q12 Survey (a tool developed by Gallup) to track it.

Shortly before the pandemic, a call came from an IT department of a Fortune 500 insurance company planning their all-associates day. The manager talked about employee engagement levels and cited the data gathered from their Q12s. Clearly, it was a real area of focus, but then he surprised me with the next sentence: “The truth is, I’m kind of sick of talking about engagement and so is everyone else. You know what? For this event, I don’t want you to even mention the ‘E’ word.”

I laughed but I got it. Engagement is great, but the constant talk about it is not only exhausting, frankly, it kind of misses the point.

People don’t become lots more engaged because they’re told to be or because they’re graded on how much they are. It’s a little like a comedian coming up with laughter metrics and telling the audience that they need to step it up if they expect to be successfully entertained. Laughter is just what happens when the food is hot, the drinks are cold, the microphone works and the jokes are funny.

Engagement is like laughter in that comedy club. It’s a natural by-product of doing all kinds of things that create a work experience where people feel connected, cared about and appropriately challenged.

When the day of the meeting came, there were several presentations by managers and they all had slides showing corporate hieroglyphics for engagement measures and goals. So, when my turn finally came, the first words were, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not here to talk about employee engagement.” If applause had been my only goal, we could have stopped right there because that was almost a standing ovation.

Instead we talked about individual joy and passion and adopting some vocabulary and actions for expressing real gratitude to one another and the importance of laughing together and identifying and tearing down old barriers and tearing up old scripts that had contributed to silo-building and turf wars (I had to prove my corporate jargon was up-to-date) and then just let the engagement take care of itself. Because if you’ve hired the right people and consistently and sincerely demonstrated that they matter and that they belong here and that someone cares about them (not their numbers, but them), you’ll like the result.

And- at the end of the day-that’s really all that matters.

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