People want to be engaged. They want to be treated fairly, to be consulted about what is happening, and to feel valued and supported. Yet employee engagement initiatives often meet with scepticism, resistance and even hostility. Why is this? Can we understand the source of the resistance and build on this understanding to create positive ways to handle it?
First, let’s look at what employee engagement is all about. Figure 1 illustrates the overlap between what engaged employees can give their employer and what a good employer can offer its employees. True employee engagement sits in the overlap – it is a two-way relationship between people and the organisation they work for.
Engagement for Volunteers
As an aside, let’s also acknowledge the importance of this relationship of engagement between an organisation and its volunteers. It is every bit as valuable as engagement of paid staff. Whilst volunteers are essentially defined by their willingness to “give”, engagement in this case represents a far more comprehensive “give” than simply time. In exchange, an organisation committed to engagement can offer a “get” that represents, for a volunteer, far more than the warm glow of knowing they are contributing to something of worth.
Un-engaged volunteers are often doing little more than going through the motions of their volunteering role, so the return on engagement is as valuable for the volunteering organisation as for an employer, whether it is a charity, a community organisation, a statutory body, an educational endeavour or a cultural institution.
The Big question
Engagement seems like such an obviously “good thing” that we have to ask, why would anybody resist it? This turns out to be the essential question, because there are many answers and, to deal effectively with the resistance and be successful in delivering genuine engagement in the face of it, we must know which answer is relevant and adapt our response to the resistance we encounter.
The Onion Model
In the Handling Resistance Pocketbook, I introduced The Onion Model of ResistanceTM. This identifies six “layers of resistance” that we frequently encounter. Let’s look at that model as it applies to resistance to engagement.
This will give us our different reasons for resistance and, hence, our ways of handling it. The Onion Model of Resistance to Engagement is illustrated in Figure 2.
Like a real onion, resistance to engagement has layers. As you peel one away, you will often reveal another beneath it and, if you do, that layer will be hotter than the one before.
Before we peel the onion, however, I want to cover the basics. When you introduce employee or volunteer engagement to your organisation for the first time, you are creating a change. Therefore, Mike’s first law of change applies.
“Resistance is inevitable”
And once you encounter resistance, as you will, Mike’s golden rule applies:
“Always respect your resisters”
This rule enjoins us to set aside our personal discomfort with the resister’s behaviour, our sense that it feels like a personal attack (it rarely is), or our desire to reciprocate any animosity we feel. The truth is that, to the resister, their reasons for resisting are good ones. Often, objectively, we would be compelled to acknowledge that their reasons are sound. So it makes sense to be respectful not just because it the decent way to behave, but because it will get you better results.
You might, however, deprecate the way the resistance is expressed. It is quite reasonable to make clear your objection to inappropriate behaviours or language – respectfully. But separate poor behaviour from the person, and respect them while you reject their approach. When we feel under pressure, we find it harder to express ourselves clearly and courteously, so this poor behaviour should signal to you that the other person is struggling with the perceived change.
With this noted, let’s look at each layer, one at a time.
“I don’t understand why you want me to engage with you”
Engagement will take effort on my part and, if I can’t see why I should do it, then it is perfectly reasonable to resist. It isn’t just children who say “why?” when they can’t see the point of something. You need to be able to show me the benefits of engagement: what’s in it for me?
These may be positive benefits – a real advantage to me for embracing engagement – or they may be negative, in the sense that, by not engaging, I may be worse off. Let’s start with this case.
A lot of engagement initiatives are a response to commercial or political pressures. It is a time consuming and therefore costly endeavour, so your organisation must be doing it for a reason. Help me to understand that reason and show me how it will affect me. Listen to how I resist and give me the evidence I need, whether it is anecdotal, first-hand experience, or facts and figures. Also help me to feel the same sense of urgency that you feel.
If there are positive benefits, be sure to stress the benefits that will appeal to me, rather than rattling off a list of abstract concepts like the examples in figure 1. Instead of “relationships”, tell me how the programme will give me a chance to get to know the people in marketing better, so I can collaborate to make more sales. Rather than talking about “meaning”, show me how I will have a greater role in talking to schools, like the one my children attend, about what our company does.
“I don’t understand how to engage with you”
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