Engagement – what is it?

Engagement is one of those words that can potentially be off-putting because it is used so often, yet with so little clarity on what it means. When I use the word ‘engagement’ – in the context of See & Connect – I am referring to involvement and commitment. Thus, stronger ‘engagement’ means involvement and commitment with deeper roots and greater effectiveness in delivering desired outcomes. Take culture change. Engagement is an essential part of driving culture change. Culture change without engagement tends to be a process of compliance rather than commitment.  

I could write a lot on this, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on one point: developing strong and effective engagement is a journey. Engagement begins with assessing where people are with the issue/matter at hand.  What’s currently alive for them? What ethical values, social values, beliefs and roles are guiding their responses and behaviors to the issue/matter?  My ideal starting point in an engagement process is to get to know people and what’s important to them. Where we go from there will unfold depending on what’s alive in people and how they need to travel to get to a point where it feels right for them and/or they are inspired to become actively and positively engaged with the issue/matter at hand.  

Yet, when driving culture change, changemakers often try to engage people by telling them the following:

•   We have a problem.

•   We need to do something about this problem because…

•   This means you have to start doing X, Y, Z.

How does this feel to you? To me, it feels like I’m telling someone something and assuming the ‘facts’ alone will result in them doing what they are told to do – I’m instructing someone rather than asking them to join me in working through what’s going on and how we can together create change. I’m also ignoring their experiences and perspectives, including their fears and concerns. Here are some reasons why the above method seldom delivers transformative change:

•   People do not accept there is a problem.

•   People accept there is a problem, but do not think they have a role in creating/perpetuating it nor in addressing it.

•   People are not persuaded that anything can be done about the problem – ‘it’s the way things are…’

•   People agree there is a problem, but believe it does not impact on them and see no point in getting involved – they want to know ‘What’s in it for me?’

•   People feel angry because they have a sense they are being accused and blamed for wrong-doing.

•   People agree there is a problem, but do not the like the solutions being given to them.

This is not to say that setting out the problem, its significance and possible solutions is a wasted effort – not at all. Only today, someone who read my Runnymede Trust report Snowy Peaks told me it was a relief to read because it affirmed her experience of her organisation – she feels less alone and more empowered to take action.

What will be important for this woman, and is important in any engagement effort, is to be ready to embark on a journey rather than focus solely on identifying a problem and preparing a list of demands.  In a journey with this woman and her not-very-convinced-there-is-an-issue colleagues, the aim is to generate mutual understanding and find common ground – for the people involved to see and connect with themselves, each other and the issue in new ways. If we want to create more equitable, responsible, nourishing workplaces, schools, public institutions and communities at home and across the world, we need more cultures where people are engaged with a progressive vision – rather than ticking boxes to be compliant with seemingly necessary rules. Compliance cultures usually exist to deliver minimum standards.  Minimum standards will rarely bring about human flourishing. I don’t know about you, but I want to aim for flourishing – not basic survival. And if we are going to aim high, we need more connective forms of engagement.




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