Crossing through the door into employer heaven: Answering the question “who owns engagement”


Picture engagement as a door.

A door to employer heaven, where people are mostly always positive (even about challenges), where people care about and are invested in the outcomes, where they reach for more and yet will do it with less, where connections are made with one another to form something stronger together than apart.

We’ve all heard of this place. We know that we want to be there. Working there is more fun, is more rewarding, and is frankly easier because we like being there.

But getting there means we need a door into it. And having a door means we need to know who is responsible for planning it, for building it, for stepping through it.

I’ve led culture, employee experience, and engagement for two decades when this question about ownership comes up it often becomes a derailer, getting teams get stuck on the question “who owns engagement” instead of driving to the outcome. This question also comes with unhealthy finger pointing, like

  • It’s HR’s fault my team isn’t engaged – they didn’t tell me how to engage my people! Doesn’t HR own this?
  • It’s my manager’s fault I’m not engaged – he or she hasn’t engaged me! Doesn’t my manager own this?
  • It’s my employees fault they aren’t engaged – they choose not to engage no matter what I do! Don’t the employees own this?

Let’s go back to that door to answer the “who owns engagement” question.

Because you see, a door doesn’t just appear, and just because you have a door doesn’t mean someone will walk through it.

The Blueprints for the Door – HR

The blueprints for the door are created by HR, establishing the process for engagement. This includes an employee listening strategy to gather feedback, and creating purposeful and useful guidelines, job aids, programs, etc. It’s cornerstone to the metaphor to understand that HR doesn’t “do” culture and engagement – HR architects it.

To expand a bit, a door is only one part of a building, of course. So HR’s role is also to architect the other aspects of the building, intentionally creating engaging experiences across the lifecycle of attraction, learning, and growth.

The Building of the Door – People Leaders

The people leader’s (or manager’s) role is to take the blueprints published by HR and build a door.

HR must have done their job well to create blueprints that can be followed. If the blueprints aren’t right, or there aren’t any blueprints, leaders will have an incredibly difficult time building the door.

The door may look like a lot of things … an appreciation-rich environment, feedback that drives development, managing with empathy, supporting flexible work options. It’s vital to realize that none of these things actually create engagement. They instead create the environment in which engagement can happen.

There is more than one door, leaders from the C-suite on down each must build a door.

Walking Over the Threshold – the Employees

Now that the door is built to the correct specifications, the employees must choose whether they walk over its threshold.

The door can be beautiful, but if it’s not used by the people it’s designed for, it by itself won’t engage. In other words, while leaders can create an environment in which an employee can be engaged, it’s up to each individual employee to take that step to engage.

But if a door hasn’t been built – if there hasn’t been an environment created in which you can be engaged – you can’t step through, no matter how much you desperately want to be engaged.

Or, the leader wants to create the door but they don’t have the blueprints from HR to do it correctly, no matter how hard you as the employee try, you won’t be able to be engaged.

Or, no matter how perfectly the blueprints were followed or how beautifully the door is built, if you don’t want to be engaged, you will choose to never walk over that threshold and will stay as that grumpy person in the corner.

Or, you may desperately want to be engaged, you’re knocking at the door to come in and it has been slammed shut in your face because the environment is a poor one where perhaps collegiality is discouraged, performance isn’t appreciated or rewarded, or you are asked to do too much with too little support – and you are burnt out.

The Key – the Influencers

The key represents the people who are your culture champions, affinity group sponsors, long tenured inspirers, and others who hand over the key, influencing employees to step over the threshold or not.

You probably know who they are at your company.

Besides influencing the employees with the key, they may even have influence over how the door is built – such as, how much decor goes on the door that attracts employees through it, if there’s a peep-hole that lets employees see to the other side transparently or not.

Influencers drive the informal and often unspoken aspects of the environment, like how people feel when they walk in the morning and everyone says hi (or nobody does). If birthday gifts are the norm or just a card is what people do. If people start IM conversations with “hi” or just drive right to their question.

Often times these invisible norms are so entrenched that few recognize them as cultural markers. But wise leaders uncover them and learn to leverage them to build the door in a way that is attractive and to hand employees a key to open it.

Bringing it All Together

You see, it takes all of us to create an environment in which people can be engaged. We must have deliberate processes and programs, an environment that can engage, influencers to entice us, and the desire to step through.

Have you built a door to engagement at your organization, or are you expecting your people to show up in employer heaven without one? The choice is yours.

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