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The Definition of Engagement

Written by Erica Bassford, Head of Aspire, LI Europe Ltd

Engagement.

It’s a word that gets used frequently, but what does it really mean?

If you have ever put your child through school exams you will probably be able to relate to my current situation. Like me, you probably experienced the step up in homework, the constant need to encourage your child to increase their vocabulary through reading, and then the inevitable requests for help. It can be time-consuming, draining and quite often, the source of tension, especially when asked questions you aren’t sure how to answer. I often find myself wondering how we survived before Google!

Yesterday, however, I was feeling quite smug when asked the question, ‘what exactly does engagement mean mum?’

I know something about this subject considering I’ve spent years working with leaders to increase the engagement of their teams. All I needed to do was put it in terms my nine-year-old son would understand.

My son announced that he’d found four definitions; a formal agreement to get married; an arrangement to do something or go somewhere at a fixed time; a fight or battle between armed forces; and the process of encouraging people to be interested in the work of an organisation. With such a range of definitions, he was left flummoxed.

I quickly dealt with the first three definitions, giving examples that he might relate to, but I pondered on the last definition: ‘The process of encouraging people to be interested in the work of an organisation’.

This definition is most aligned to my thinking within business, yet it falls somewhat short of my interpretation. For me, engagement means much more than simply being interested – it means people really apply discretionary effort and actively work to deliver improvement. To achieve that takes much more than simply encouraging people. It requires leadership, delegated freedom and above all, making sure employees feel involved and listened to.

I gave some real-life examples and shared some of the techniques that I use when training and mentoring managers in engagement, including The Tannenbaum and Schmidt continuum of leadership and delegated freedom. My son, for once, seemed genuinely engaged.

‘So, you’re trying to get me engaged in my work,’ he declared. ‘You want me to put in more effort because I want to make a difference, not because you tell me to?’

Eureka! Not only has he understood the definition, he now understands why me asking him to do his homework isn’t enough. He has to be engaged to get the benefit. Although, I guess discretionary might be the next definition I have to explain!

If you’re struggling with more than just the definition of engagement, by all means get in touch. It is an art rather than a science but it’s easier to travel the journey together.

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