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  • Dave Caperton

Engagement Without Jargon

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 maybe all the jargon is more ritual than meaning, and in a meeting with a COO I said, “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.”

He raised an eyebrow and then nodded and said, “I think that’s right on target.” I thought, why? Are you on laughing gas?


The trick, I learned, is to stay current because new jargon is being manufactured all the time by all these so-called thought-leaders. One of the biggies–and more meaningful than most–is “engagement.” Everyone is talking about ways to pump up engagement because of the disturbing findings several years ago by the Gallup organization that showed over two-thirds of US workers are not fully engaged and almost one-fifth undermining people who are, all at a yearly cost of hundreds of billions in lost productivity. The result has been a focus on employee engagement and assessment instruments such as the Q12 (provided by–surprise!–the Gallup organization) to track it.


A few months ago we got a call from the financial services 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, most of all, the comedian is funny.


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


When the day of the IT group meeting came, there were several presentations by various team managers and they all had slides showing those corporate hieroglyphics for engagement goals and measures. So, when my turn finally came, my first words were, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not going to talk about employee engagement.” If applause had been my only goal, we could have stopped right there because that almost caused 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 giving them permission to laugh 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 corp-o-jargon was up-to-date) and the next Q12 would likely reveal that engagement had taken 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.


“At the end of the day, it is what it is.” – Every Manager You Ever Met
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