Successful employee engagement is a two way process.
Employees are reluctant to engage with you and your vision if you don’t first engage with them. How do you do that? Well there are a number of different ways we adopt, but one powerful approach is to make more use of the word ‘why?’
Not ‘who?’ but ‘why?’
When things go wrong, we are often tempted to use the ‘who?’ word as in ‘who has got it wrong?’ or ‘who is to blame?’ Unfortunately, using the ‘who?’ word implies an individual is at fault - someone has cocked up. Moreover, asking ‘who?’ reinforces management’s implicit infallibility, in that it cannot be the design of their organization, system or process that is at fault. ‘Who?’ deflects blame to the employees and away from management.
Another dampener with using the ‘who?’ word is that it leaves no room for root cause analysis. Without finding the root cause there is no opportunity to change the system to create sustained improvement. Asking ‘who?’ tends to drive us to jump to conclusions and quick fix solutions - find the culprits and deal with them.
The net result of this attitude is a huge turn-off for employees who, seeing that the fundamentals cannot be questioned, react by keeping their heads down, deflect blame if possible and expend valuable energy pursuing ‘impression management’ to preserve their own status and security.
So, when a problem occurs, take two all-important steps.
First, assume responsibility yourself for the root cause of the problem.
Second try to clarify what’s wrong by asking ‘why?’ as in ‘Why has this happened? ‘Why has this gone wrong?’ and so on.
Asking ‘why?’ avoids finger pointing or a witch-hunt for culprits and instead focuses on the system. Asking 'why?' shows that you are embarking on a joint initiative with employees to solve the problem at hand.
‘Why?’ helps meet psychological needs and helps reduce stress
Importantly, ask the people actually doing the work ‘why?’ and keep asking ‘why?’ until you drill down to the root cause. At that point, ask them ‘how can we fix it?’ This collaborative approach provokes a fruitful conversation with your employees on an equal basis. Being able to collaborate inspires them to help you try and get the system right. It is this type of empowerment that truly engages people.
Psychologists recognize that inviting employees to help solve problems and to share responsibility for improving the system meets several powerful emotional needs. These needs include the need for a challenge, the need to be recognized as a valued member of a wider team, the need for some autonomy and control over their environment and the need for a sense of achievement. Significantly, when you meet these psychological needs you defuse stressed thinking and behavior and instead cultivate enthusiasm, commitment and loyalty.
The key lesson here is that if you can avoid blaming your employees, you put them firmly on your side. Once they are on your side they help you to find the answers. Whilst on the other hand, if you play the blame game, you trigger their primitive survival mechanisms and trip them into a reflex defensive action that works against you and tends to bury problems even deeper. Hiding problems only serves to undermine the system and leads to ruin. Asking your people ‘why?’ helps uncover problems and the reason they are occurring.
Be glad to be wrong
This is why, as leaders we can be glad when we find a problem. In reality, problems in any system are inevitable, so finding a problem, rather than being a nasty surprise, can be seen as the start of a joint improvement process with the people who do the work. In this way, getting into the habit of asking ‘why?’ helps the organization learn from its mistakes and transforms the speed of improvement by fully engaging the workforce.
Jeremy Old is author of ‘Reinventing management thinking – using science to release the human spirit’.
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