Stop trying to engage your people: Let them engage you!

by Didier Marlier on Thursday January 14th, 2016

I could not dream of a better way to start my professional year, on January 4th, than by having an informal conversation in a Paris bar, with the CEO of one of our favourite clients. Talking about some of the details he would like to see change in his organization’s culture, he said: “When I see the amount of time which is wasted by our people, polishing the hopefully “perfect” PowerPoint presentation, it disappoints me! What are we doing to lead them to believe that this is what we want? I would so much more prefer that they engage us into an adult-adult discussion!”

In his honour, and fully supportive of his stance, I would like to dedicate this clip* to the point he was making.

What this CEO expects from his future meetings is nothing more than being moved from a passive consumption attitude to an active co-creation mindset: Engage me, challenge me! (“challenge being a sign of engagement”, for my ex IMD professor and co-author, Chris Parker).

This discussion connected with a trend I see emerging, pushed by the paradigm shift of the Disruption Economy: What if we, leaders, were stopping to engage our people and let them engage us instead?

It reminded me of an event: A few years ago, an excellent financial institution decided to mobilise their whole organization behind a bold and courageous new strategy. The mistake they did happened when the Executive Board, assuming it was their duty to communicate the plan to their people, invited several hundreds of them and sought to engage them through traditional one way broadcast with the usual “sub group work & reporting” in between. When I left, I warned the CEO that he should have low expectations in regard to the strategy being cascaded down. And, in fact, the communication packages quickly went attracting dust on the participants shelves, back at their office.

The CEO, after voicing his initial disappointment, decided: “Let us reverse the onus of engagement. Let us spread the rumour that a new strategy exists, then communicate to our people, lower down in the organization, the names of their bosses who were at the Convention and let us invite ourselves in their locations and have them convince us whether this is a good strategy or not”. We trained the leaders into using behaviours that would create the right atmosphere, enable a real dialogue (applying our credo “our clients’ success is a function of the quality of their interactions, thinking patterns, behaviours and dialogues”) and
 rarely did we see such engaged and high level “strategic dialogue” taking place between Executive Board members and their people, far down below the chain of command. What this institution had done was simply to challenge the orthodoxy that the top should always seek to sell and convince their people about the new strategy. They expected their people to engage them!

Now, for those of us, wishing to see behaviours at work and the kind of open minded, exploratory and “strategic” mindset they can inspire in a team, I invite you to watch this great black and white Hollywood classic with Henri Fonda, Twelve Angry Men Unfortunately I was just warned that th original version isn’t available on YouTube any longer so I inserted this one, equally illustrative).

Leading successfully in the “Disruption Economy” will request that we identify and question our implicit and unconscious “leadership orthodoxies”. And to invite our people to engage us instead of believing that this is our mission, always, may be one of those

Enjoy your Leadership Journey!


* with my apologies to those who might have seen it here, five years ago in a post published by Michael Newman


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2 Responses to “Stop trying to engage your people: Let them engage you!”

  1. Love it Didier! Thanks again for a good KITA (kick-in-the-arse) and for making me laugh! I guess I am one of those big time PowerPoint violators. Jay

    • Yes, all right but I know from experience that you got something excellent to say. Now mind you, dear Jay, I use your clips more than any PowerPoint, in my work and they produce a strong impact 😉 Thank you for your kind comment!!!


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