Engagement is emotional before it is rational

31 January 2016 By Richard Meredith

Like Mark Crowley - Employee Engagement Isn't Getting Better And Gallup Shares The Surprising Reasons Why - I think employee engagement is vitally important.

If you’re engaged you’re probably happy and motivated, and if you’re happy you’re likely to be more productive and collaborative. And if you’re more productive you’re likely to enjoy the results and want to do more. And so, you will be of benefit to your organisation and its goals.

Crowley says, “Engagement largely comes down to whether people have a manager who cares about them, grows them and appreciates them.”

After 40 years working in and observing small and large organisations in business, the arts, non profits and media I believe there are common factors that help to achieve engagement, quite apart from adequate breaks and flex time.

Here are just a few:

Focus on a project, enterprise or plan. Focusing on a project puts everyone on the same path towards a common goal with clear individual roles and responsibilities. It has an end point that everyone can see. Invite your team to frame the project – what, how, who, when? Provided you are prepared to be open a project provides opportunities for exploration and imaginative problem solving, and a compass to guide your exploration so it doesn’t run off the rails. Try to do at least one project like this a year.

Start from where they are. Start naturally with something social – a lunch, drinks, a picnic in the park. Then begin to nudge your way forward with ideas and questions, sensing when it is time to shift gears, to add challenges, to test trust. There is no need, in fact, it is probably counter-productive to speechify about your good intentions. They will only be proven by your actions.

Get out of the office. Find a venue that is not full of the familiar work equipment and the often sanitised office. This stuff is cluttering your psyche – like a dead weight. Look for a venue with atmosphere. Many conference and training centres look and feel just like offices. Avoid them. Try the local theatre – often empty during the day. Or a chapel, an art gallery. A community hall can sometimes be ‘right’. Or a warehouse. If you have a hometown circus see if you can work in one of their training spaces. Think outside the box – your office is ‘the box.’ Remember when you were at school that one exciting project a teacher allowed you to do that broke the boredom of the everyday routine.

Avoid analysis. As you begin, at all costs avoid analysis, avoid evaluation and avoid ‘correct’ answers. The saying ‘analysis causes paralysis’ is very true at this point in your project. Get comfortable with the void of not knowing and focus your attention on asking questions, opening enquiry – show you have an honest desire to share and to find new ways to undertake the project. NB. If you’re starting from a situation with high levels of mistrust this is going to take a little longer.

Invent your own journey. Avoid expert templates and formulas. As much as they appear to be helpful, these structures from the rational mind are seeking shortcuts to the ‘right’ answer. They will constrain creativity and openness and place control in the hands of whoever introduces them. The only thing that matters is your team’s project and your willingness to explore its possibilities together.

Minimise the ‘communication’ junk. This is not a time for powerpoints or for mind numbing videos. This is a time for facing one another as people. Get rid of all those office props that keep people apart while purporting to enhance communication. Floorboards, mats, cushions, a few chairs and a table for drinks and food may be all you need.

Take unexpected directions. Blast your logical mind out the window and follow your senses. Take what comes your way and build it together. Every great idea looks silly when it first appears.

Practise creativity. Creative exercises help participants bypass their habitual ‘analysis first’ reaction, allowing for openness and exploration. New insights and ideas emerge. Creative practice encourages collaboration and breaks down the barriers between people that have been created by the hierarchies of title and status in an organisation.

Sports people practise. Musicians practise. Scientists experiment. But we seem to think that organisational change and development projects will reach new heights if we simply have a rational discussion.

To get better at basketball or surfing you don’t just think about it, you practise it. Doing feeds thinking and thinking feeds doing. Visualisation fills your thoughts and dreams. Teams learn to work together through practising together. They become engaged. They build a relationship based around their senses.

Creativity exercises the senses. It also encourages openness, fun, teamwork and humour, which help to break down barriers. When we experience the power of taking action together, particularly around an agreed project or plan, of sensing our way forward, of experimenting, we can become true collaborators. And, almost incidentally, we become more engaged. Because engagement is emotional before it is rational.

Getting results

Getting results is essential. Creativity often gets a bad rap because it’s ‘warm and fuzzy’ but doesn’t lead to outcomes. Getting results requires both divergent and convergent thinking and knowing when to use each to full effect.

It is critical to know when to reintroduce our critical faculties, to make choices and decisions. If we commit only a token amount of time to creative activity it will lead to little but it will probably be fun. Too much creativity avoids the requirement to make choices and get outcomes.


Richard Meredith is a skilled volunteer with Leadership Victoria. He is pro bono chairman and executive officer at the Good Life Farm, which provides therapeutic and educational programs for vulnerable, at risk young people.

Richard is founder and principal at Creative Practice, a specialist innovation practice that helps organisations and businesses to make changes that will bring them greater success and enrich their culture.  

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