If your boss manages your engagement, what do you do?

The concept of employee engagement (as opposed to satisfaction), is now 20 years old. One of the more popular frameworks introduced by The Gallup Corporation identified the manager as the most important driver of employee engagement.

Imagine most developing countries 20 years back. Formal jobs were rare. Most people wanted job security. In a world where supply was significantly lower than the demand, the sellers could set their price. Senior managers were powerful and could expect and get employees to do their bidding without much fuss. Job satisfaction was an academic subject not impacting the way organizations work.

Today, organizations compete to be in the coveted lists of best workplaces. They measure not only their employees’ engagement, but also track which manager is good at engaging teams and who is not.

One thing has not changed. The manager is still identified as the major driver of engagement of employees, apart from others, by the employees themselves. Consultants and Engagement specialists continue to reinforce this belief.

Is this strong belief as relevant today as it was twenty years back? Or should we question this belief just as we question beliefs like women are more suitable for jobs that require soft skills (or less suitable for jobs with poor work-life balance)?

Twenty years back, the manager had real power over people, simply because not many jobs were available. Today’s employees, particularly millennials, have many more options in the job market. If they can switch jobs easily without the manager having any power to stop them, what would they gain by giving the manager absolute power over their engagement?

This seems to be one of those self-perpetuating beliefs that we need to question. Most self-perpetuating beliefs are based on an assumption that is not questioned, leading to an action that is based on prejudice, which reinforces the same assumption.

Studies show a clear correlation between engagement and productivity, quality and creativity. If it is so important to my career, why would I sit back and wait for my boss to engage me? What if she is herself dis-engaged and waiting for her boss to engage her? Where does this chain stops? Who engages the CEO?

While CEO engagement is not what most of us have to worry about, we can take charge of our engagement and start by improving the engagement of our boss, i.e., improving the possibility of our boss investing discretionary efforts in our relationship with an attempt to help us develop.

How?

  • Take accountability

It is a pleasure to work with people who can take accountability. They make an equal number of goof ups compared to others (sometimes more because they take decisions), but the difference is that they take accountability and come up with options. In a recent case, when there was a crisis involving multiple teams in an Organization, most were busy justifying why they did their part. One person formed a WhatsApp group of the concerned people, along with the boss, and scheduled a meeting to discuss options. Anyone from the group could have done it, but most were busy giving reasons.

Taking accountability starts with a sense of purpose and alignment with what the organization stands for. It is not dependent on the level of the person or the kind of job. I am reminded of the janitor at Mayo Clinic who said that her job was to save lives because she is a part of the process that reduces the chances of secondary infection.

Taking accountability also means knowing when to say “No” to something you will not be able to do well. Your “Yes” has no value if you cannot say “No”.

  • Build expertise

Everyone has heard about the 10,000-hour rule, researched by Anders Ericsson, and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.  This is often a surprise for MBAs who thought that case study analysis in college had prepared them for real-life problems. A programmer who is merely programmed to write codes without understanding the business logic will be really bad at his job. This is why the software industry has developed another role called the business analyst who is supposed to understand not only what the customer needs, but also why. The programmer who grows faster in the organization invests that much extra time in developing his ability to understand the customer’s business and the logic behind his requirements. Over time this programmer can even question this logic and offer more innovative options to the customer.

This might require you to get out of your comfort zone and develop good habits like investing the first 60 minutes of the day to do what you are not comfortable doing.

  • Enterprise

At the end of the day, there are only two kinds of employees – one who comes to the boss with a “challenge” and one who comes with a “challenge” and how he or she plans to solve it. In a soap making company every once in a while there will be a packet of soap in the automated process with no soap inside! When all experts failed to come up with a cost-effective solution, an operator simply installed a fan blowing air with enough force to displace an empty packet from the assembly line!

The biggest obstacle to your career is a belief that you are a prisoner of circumstances with your boss holding the power to engage or disengage you. It does not matter whether this assumption is right or wrong, but this is a self-fulfilling assumption that will not help your development or your career.

Your boss will be your biggest ally if you take charge of not just your engagement, but also that of your boss! An engaged boss will put in more discretionary effort in your development.

And also give you a great reference when you decide to quit! (on your terms)

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Prasenjit Bhattacharya is the Founder Director at Great Place to Work® Institute, Sri Lanka, and Great Place to Work® India. He is currently the CEO of Great Manager Institute ®. Views expressed are personal.

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