I’d like to take the opportunity to build on Michael’s post “The US 7th Cavalry and the Quantum Zeno Effect” and introduce explicitly an idea that has been hinted at a few times here without ever being directly addressed. Michael’s main point was that, very often, top management unwittingly undermines employee engagement by an inappropriate choice of words, by being inconsistent in what they praise or reward and by failing to “walk the talk”.
Another way of looking at how our use of language can affect employee engagement is through the lens of social constructionism. Hidden behind this rather ugly term is the simple and indeed common-sense idea that our opinion on any given situation, i.e. the reality as we see it, is the result of all our thoughts, discussions and interactions relevant to that situation.
There are three key points to make in relation to this:
- No two persons can have exactly the same combination of thoughts and experiences and therefore the “reality” that each of us sees is inevitably different. There are as many versions of reality as there are people: “truth” and “reality” are therefore essentially subjective. (For confirmation of this, ask a lawyer…)
- The more we discuss the situation with others, the more our views will be colored and informed by what the others say, and (in most cases), the more our views will converge to create a dominant group consensus. The depth and diversity of our relationships therefore have a direct impact on how we see the world.
- The whole thing is dynamic: since the situation is constantly changing and evolving, our opinions and views are subject to change as our relationships, and discussions and thoughts evolve. (Eventually, our opinions may solidify as we fall under the influence of “confirmation bias” and see all new information through the same lens, but that is another story).
This is relevant at both the micro and the macro level. At the micro level, it is easy to see that small groups that interact regularly tend to converge on a common view. (This is the origin of “groupthink”, that dangerous state of affairs where the group is no longer able to listen to dissenting points of view). However, it is the macro level that I want to develop here.
At the macro level, the attitudes and feelings of the entire organization are socially constructed, creating the organization’s current climate. Since the climate determines the level of engagement people have at any one time, it is of prime importance to leaders to understand how social construction works and how to use it to create higher levels of engagement.
So what can be done, in concrete terms, to create the right climate to drive engagement?
Since the climate is socially constructed, our best hope to influence it is to participate purposefully in the on-going organizational dialogue. There are three key things to take into account:
1. Mind your language
This was the main point in Michael’s post: the repeated use of words, metaphors and stories hard-wires your people to think and behave in particular ways. To put it another way, the words, metaphors and stories you choose are key drivers in the social construction of the climate of your organization. Better get them right! If you need collaborative behavior, don’t reward and make heroes out of individuals. If you need a more ethical stance, stop rewarding people that get results through borderline behavior. And if you want your organization to be more positive and optimistic, use positive and optimistic language. (I am going to develop this point at length in a future post on Appreciative Inquiry, a way to mobilize people for change based on accentuating the positive).
2. Focus on the opinion-leaders
In my experience, the loud-mouths and trouble-makers that create the most powerful negative forces in any organization tend to have several positive features: they care deeply about the organization, they want it to be successful, they have a lot of energy and they are often influential. There are of course many exceptions but their negativity often stems more from a feeling of being ignored than from any real disagreement with the key messages. Engage with them, listen to them – they probably have some important insights to what will or won’t work at the operational level – get them involved and you may be astonished by the power of their conversion and the extent of their positive impact!
3. Dialogue, not monologue
Unless there is a genuine and immediate emergency, structure your communication as a two-way dialogue. It is far better to connect and co-create a sense of shared understanding, no matter how messy, than to remain remote and protected behind a slick PR show that convinces nobody. Forget the standard deck of 72 PowerPoint slides, and cut it down to the vital five or six, presented with full attention to ethos and pathos (for more on this, see Didier’s March 2011 post “Broadcasting is not engaging”. Follow it up immediately by an exchange with the audience. Split them into small groups and have them discuss amongst themselves. Ask the small groups to write their questions, concerns or recommendations on cards or Post-it notes that are collected for you and the management team to answer in a Q&A session. Because the cards are anonymous, people feel emboldened to ask the “real questions” . Thus begins a genuine dialogue in which you can understand what people are really feeling and respond accordingly.
Michael Newman recently pointed out to me that without dialogue, we never get to learn how different our perceptions are, nor what are the gaps in individuals’ understanding of the message. Giving enough time for dialogue results in a more rounded and nuanced picture, and in people feeling more connected and respected. Through openness and exploration, dialogue helps build better common Logos; through curious questioning and active listening it role models a desired Ethos; and through the right choice of language it creates a positive spirit and energy to support the Pathos.
By minding your language, engaging with the opinion leaders and choosing dialogue over monologue, you can retain much more influence over your peoples’ opinion than if you simply broadcast the key messages.
Engagement is a socially constructed, two-way process, part of the work of every leader!
 See Gergen, Kenneth J (2009) An Introduction to Social Constructionism. Sage Publications ltd (Second Edition)
 Be aware, however, that the process requires humility and respect. We recently witnessed a similar process badly undermined by a board member exclaiming something like: “Who was the idiot that asked this question? He should come and see me immediately!”