Strategy for Engagement

By Peter Block

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Much of our effort to improve engagement is organized around conversations of problem solving, deficiencies, holding others accountable, and creating change through leadership, legislation, and program driven improvement.

We bet on the future by identifying problems, assessing their cause, and developing action plans which lead to tangible investments and programs. This is a desire to control the future through specifically identified destinations and blueprints to reach that future. This has the side effect of encouraging employees to turn their future over to specialized experts, full time implementers, and formal leaders.

An alternative is to organize around conversations of possibility, gifts, holding ourselves accountable, and inviting change through citizenship, engagement, and being pulled forward by an alternative future as it emerges.

This alternative approach is a bet on a future where we recognize and reframe problems as symptoms, avoid assessing causes, postpone tangible investments and programs, and invest in the intangible assets, which we call engagement and social capital. This is a strategy to create a future through a shift in context and language, a shift in how we engage each other when we come together, and a shift in how we think about the physical architecture within which we live.

We commonly cite problems such as low engagement, leadership not leading by example, entitlement culture, uncommitted workforce or the lack of empowerment. Yet if we continue to treat these conditions as problems, there will be no breakthroughs. There can be no real shift if we act on them in the existing context using the existing language. At best we will achieve marginal improvements or slow the deterioration.

The shift in context and language is to recognize and name these conditions as symptoms of the breakdown in community. This shift then leads us to explore what breakthrough would be required to replace a breakdown. And this exploration means that community is not only seen and related to as a place or an outcome, but is now also seen and related to as an experience.

The Means of Engagement

There is evidence that what makes a significant difference in reducing the symptoms and achieving authentic, positive returns on our tangible investments is the extent to which employees take personal and communal responsibility for the well being of the whole. We might name this the condition where we live within a culture of accountability.

Engagement as used here is much broader and more demanding than the usual lens of getting a group of people to give inputs, creating pride-building special events, and marketing the benefits of a new strategy.

Engagement is the individual and collective choice of how we choose to be together. It is to collectively create the power to cause a breakthrough in the social capital of community.

This kind of engagement begins with a shift in language, which correlates with a shift in context. The language and subsequent conversations that occur in the public debate and when citizens are assembled have the power to shift the experience of our future. This shift is towards:

  1. Possibility rather than problem solving
  2. Gifts rather than deficiencies
  3. Ownership rather than blame
  4. Commitment rather than barter
  5. Invitation rather than mandate

1. The Invitation Conversation

The invitation must contain a hurdle or demand if accepted. It is a challenge to engage. Most leadership initiatives or training are about how we get or ‘enrol’ people to do tasks and feel good about doing things they may not want to do. People need to ‘self-enrol’ in order to experience their freedom of choice and commitment. The leadership task is to name the debate, issue the invitation, and invest in those who choose to show up. Those who accept the call will bring the next circle of people into the conversation.

2. The Ownership Conversation

This conversation begins with the question: “How have I contributed to creating the current reality?” Confusion, blame and waiting for someone else to change are a defence against ownership and personal power. The enemy of ownership is innocence and indifference. The future is denied with the response: “It doesn’t matter to me. Whatever you want to do is fine.” Such a statement is always a lie and just a polite way of avoiding a difficult conversation about ownership. People best create that which they own and co-creation is the bedrock of accountability. It is the belief that I am the cause, not the effect. The leadership task is to confront people with their freedom.

3. The Possibility Conversation

This focuses on what we want our future to be as opposed to problem-solving the past. This is based on an understanding that living systems are really propelled towards the future. The possibility conversation frees people to innovate, challenge the status quo, and create new futures that make a difference. In new work environments, this conversation has the ability for breaking new ground and in understanding the prevailing culture. Problem-solving and negotiation of interests makes tomorrow only a little different from yesterday. Possibility is a break from the past and opens the space for a future we had only dreamed of. Declaring a possibility wholeheartedly is the transformation. The leadership task is to postpone problem solving and stay focused on possibility until it is spoken with resonance and passion.

4. The Dissent Conversation

This allows people the space to say ‘no’. If we cannot say ‘no’, then our ‘yes’ has no meaning. People have a chance to express their doubts and reservations as a way of clarifying their roles, needs, and yearnings within the vision and mission being presented. Genuine commitment begins with doubt, and ‘no’ is a symbolic expression of people finding their space and role in the strategy. It is when we fully understand what people do not want that we can fully design what they want. Refusal is the foundation for commitment. The leadership task is to surface doubts and dissent without having an answer to every question.

5. The Commitment Conversation

This is about individuals making promises to their peers about their contribution to the success of the whole organisation. It is centred in two questions: What promise am I willing to make to this enterprise? And what is the price I am willing to pay for the success of the whole effort? It is a promise for the sake of a larger purpose, not for the sake of personal return. The leadership task is to reject lip service and demand either authentic commitment or ask people to say no and pass. We need the commitment of much fewer people than we thought to create the future we have in mind.

6. The Gifts Conversation

What are the gifts and assets we bring to the enterprise? Rather than focus on our deficiencies and weaknesses, which will most likely not go away, focus on the gifts we bring and capitalise on those. Instead of seeing problems in people and work, the conversation is about searching for the mystery that brings the highest achievement and success in work organisations. Confront people with their essential core that has the potential to make the difference and change lives for good. This resolves the unnatural separation between work and life. The leadership task is to bring the gifts of those on the margin into the centre.

Case Study in Chosen Accountability and Engagement

Portland General Electricity was a utility company under Enron with 3000 employees and annual sales of one billion dollars. When Enron went bankrupt, it was hit hard. Many employees lost their retirement savings. There was a lot of anger and distrust. They had to get past their history of disappointment and rebuild trust and engagement.

Scott Frank was the organization development consultant in PGE. During a training by Peter Block on “Building Accountability and Commitment”, his gut told him that this could help rebuild trust and re-engage the employees. He decided to initiate a series of 3-hr lateral (peer to peer) leadership meetings based on the methodology of conversations.

That was 3 years ago. In the first year, Scott conducted 12 lateral leadership meetings. In the 2nd and 3rd year, he continued to conduct them quarterly. Invitations were sent to employees and they came based on their personal choice. The ideas of chosen accountability and commitment were explained to them. Employees were asked to participate with questions that were designed to bring forth more chosen accountability and engagement. Some of the questions used are listed below:

Possibility Conversation: “What is the crossroad you are at for work or your life?”
Dissent Conversation: “What are your doubts and reservations?”
Ownership Conversation: “Who owns the meeting now?”
Commitment Conversation: “What is the promise you are willing to give?”
Gift Conversation: “What are the gifts you receive from one another?”

These meetings were powerful; important issues such as anger towards Enron and the silos within the company were talked about. The groups also talked about what was needed to rebuild trust. Feedback from employees included the following,

“There was more interaction and people were more willing to speak to each other.”
“We could openly speak up on difficult issues”
“I learn about being more personally responsible”
“My understanding has broadened on the importance of moving to a culture that is less hierarchical.”

These meetings started at the middle level and subsequently top management joined in and attended a Building Accountability and Commitment training workshop by Peter. This methodology was also customized to specific business contexts in team meetings.

In summary, Scott concluded, “I have a dream or picture about how I want a workplace to be and Peter’s ideas really articulated it and brought it alive.” The key outcome was the shift in the conversation from one of despair and blame to one of the possibility of what they could become, despite all that had happened to them. This was made possible with the initiative of just one person. Being 100% voluntary, it spread on its own energy.

Many thanks to Portland General Electric for sharing their experience.

Summary

These ideas can be challenging because they treat what we thought was interesting but less critical, such as an invitation, the process of a meeting, the choice of language, the shape of a room, as central and decisive. The ideas also can be seen as a way to redistribute power from formal leaders to employees. It is not about a shift in power but rather a way to produce power. Power in these terms is the capacity to make a difference in our lives and the life of our community. Our communities will become reconciled and work for all, when more and more people act as owners and stakeholders, which is what comes from this kind of power.

None of this is an argument against our existing efforts to rebuild and engage our workforce. It is more an intention to shift the context within which these efforts occur. The context of engagement and possibility is really intended to reengage the large number of employees that now sit as bystanders to the struggle for deeper meaning at work.

These ideas are based on the work of Peter Block, he is an author, thought leader and founding partner of Flame Centre, whose books have won national acclaim. His most recent book on chosen accountability and commitment, “The Answer to How is Yes” has won the Business Breakthrough Book of the Year Award.

Flame Centre consults and provides trainings in organizations on these ideas on chosen accountability and commitment. We equip organizations with new methodologies and tools so that they can implement their strategy and realise their vision fully.

If you are interested in these ideas, we would like to have a conversation with you. Call us at 90680619 or email enquiries@flamecentre.com.

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