Engagement and the Locus of Control.

Businessman dangling on threadsCustomer engagement and employee engagement have become industries in their own right. They have spawned consultancies, reports, surveys and methodologies.

I’d hate to spoil that, but I’m going to suggest that at the heart of engagement is a really simple construct, one we can do something about, but which may prove a challenge for many.

It’s about the “locus of control”. It’s the extent to which people believe they have power over events in their lives. A person with an internal locus of control believes that he or she can influence events and their outcomes, while someone with an external locus of control blames outside forces for everything.

Many of the things we do as organizations to achieve efficiency encourages those to whom they are applied an external locus of control. Levels of authority, permissions, fixed processes. In a previous blog I mentioned the five neural domains of engagement (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) and when you think about it, many systems designed to improve consistency and control put significant dents in these.

An internal locus of control on the other hand can enable extraordinary performance, and is at the heart of high performance organizations – the Toyota Production System, W.L. Gore, Special Forces teams. All of these effectively reverse the control process and puts authority in the hands of whoever is closest to the action. It features in those domains where uncertainty is at maximum – war at one end (no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy) and evolution (natural selection favours the most adaptable)

Relying on “programmes” to improve engagement is a bit like trying to learn to ride a bike by reading a book. Engagement if a contact sport, and visceral.

We are in a period of chronic uncertainty. If your systems rely on direction, compliance and control, rather than trust and delegated authority, not only will your engagement suffer, you’re probably in for a very rough ride.

The answer (almost certainly not the only one, but the best one I’ve encountered) is to adopt agile approaches – to strategy, development and operations. Focus on getting the right people, be clear about where you want to get to (far more than telling them how to get there) and support them to do what they need to do.

It can be a challenge for many of us brought up in a different era, but one we have to learn if we don’t want to fall prey to natural selection.

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