REAL Values: ENGAGE
Leading well starts with engagement
Monday Master Class
This post is the second of four, discussing what it means to effectively ENGAGE. If you haven’t done so yet, I encourage you to read the first post in this series, covering the topic of RESPECT. Later posts will cover the remaining REAL Values: Accept and Lead.
A little background:
There are so many leadership tools and tactics available, it becomes overwhelming. I wanted something foundational and broadly applicable – a way to more effectively approach every situation and better assess any potential solution.
So I created a simple set of values to measure our choices and actions against. REAL Values. REAL stands for Respect, Engage, Accept, and Lead. It’s a framework that’s easy to learn and implement in our daily lives, but the impact can be absolutely profound. I’m offering these values up as a framework you can use to create a foundation for learning to be a Relaxed Leader.
However… before I dive in, here is a brief explanation for those of you in a hurry.
ENGAGE is what we do in order to move ahead. We don’t disengage from life… we fully participate! We engage with each other and with the challenges and possibilities that are presented to us. We understand that the more of ourselves we put into something, the more we’ll get out!
The dictionary defines engage as a verb meaning to “occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention).” The second definition is “participate or become involved in.” Taken together, I believe these two definitions provide an excellent way for a Relaxed Leader to approach any endeavor.
In order to make progress, we need to begin by understanding what “progress” means in any given situation. And in spite of what many people in positions of authority believe, leaders who are disengaged cannot possibly understand what is truly needed in order to move the needle. That’s not to say poor leaders never make progress. Even an imbecile can get lucky (or can get saved by direct reports who know better) but plain old dumb luck never lasts.
In order to learn, grow, and become a force for positive change and true progress, you have to constructively engage with the world around you.
What I’m NOT talking about here is the business concept of “employee engagement.” I had over 17 million results when I searched “employee engagement” but only 122,000 results when I searched “employee engagement strategies.” If that’s what you’re interested in, then head on over to your favorite search engine and you’ll find thousands of tips, tricks, and tactics on how to make employees feel like you care about their opinion and want them more involved (whether you actually do or not).
Forgive my cynicism but I’ve worked for far too many managers over the years who have read about “employee engagement,” saw the productivity gains possible, and decided to implement it with their teams. Of course, many of them missed the part about the leader needing to genuinely want employees to be engaged. They also didn’t pick up on the fact that “engagement” does not equal “agreement.” In fact, true engagement will often lead to disagreements as you identify problems and wrestle with various possible solutions.
Anyway, if you’re looking for “employee engagement tips,” go somewhere else. But if you’re interested in understanding why Relaxed Leaders should strive to truly engage with everything they deem to be worthwhile, then stay here and keep on reading. Oh – and once you understand the value of engaging and you truly commit to doing it, you won’t need “tricks” to get employees engaged!
The opposite of ENGAGE:
To help us wrap our heads around this idea of engaging, let’s start by thinking about the opposite. What does it mean to disengage? When we disengage from other people, we focus inward and separate ourselves. We keep other people at a distance and avoid close relationships. Yes, we still have to interact with people but connection is minimized. It’s hard to operate from a place of total isolation but even that has become easier during this global pandemic. Services are evolving to a point where human contact is barely needed to get the necessities one needs in order to survive.
But is that what a Relaxed Leader wants? To simply survive? Not by my definition! If we want to make progress without stressing out, simply surviving isn’t good enough. So disengaging from the people around you isn’t going to help. Even during a global pandemic, we need to find ways to engage with other human beings. We need to figure out how to participate with people in various activities – even to the point of becoming involved in their lives to some degree – in order to make progress. Progress requires personal growth and improvement, which we’re not going to do on our own, disengaged from the rest of the world.
Finally, it’s important to realize that being engaged with others is, by my definition, a healthy, affirming, life-giving activity, while being disengaged is not. Sitting in your parents’ basement, picking potato chip crumbs out of your “neard,” and trolling people online is NOT engagement. The military use of the term – “engaging the enemy” – is not what I’m talking about. Antagonizing or attacking people is not the healthy form of engagement practiced by a Relaxed Leader.
So now that you’ve got an image in your mind of what it looks like to be disengaged, let’s think about what I mean when I encourage you to ENGAGE with the world.
Areas of engagement:
I find it helpful to think about engagement relative to the various areas within my life. You can break them down a number of different ways – whatever works for you – but here’s my list, to get you thinking:
Relationships (family, friends, and everyone else)
Work (paid, volunteer, side-hustle)
Creation (the earth, the environment, nature, etc)
Self (mind, body, and spirit)
Engage with Relationships:
I believe that every human life has value but I only have the capacity to have close, life-giving relationships with a finite number of people. The level to which I engage with my family and my close friends is certainly much deeper than with “everyone else.” In order to live my life accordingly, it means I need to allow close relationships to occupy more of my time, energy, and focus.
If I find that I am spending more time trying to engage with “everyone else,” it may not be a bad thing but it’s something to monitor. There are opportunity costs to almost everything, and engagement is no exception. It’s also important to note that interaction is not the same as engagement, so the time I spend interacting with “everyone else,” may never end in true engagement... and it takes time away from engaging with those closest to me.
However, if I never reach out beyond my family and current friends, my personal growth is definitely limited. As Relaxed Leaders, we must find the balance between staying engaged with family and friends, while exploring ways to truly engage with new people – even those with whom we disagree.
Engage with Work:
Most of us interact with others as we perform our work, whether that work is a paid job or career, something we do as a volunteer, or even a side-hustle (like The Relaxed Leader publication). We should be open to engage with the people we encounter but we should also engage with the work itself. Plenty of people talk about the difference between a “job” (something you do for money) and a “career” (a vocation for which you get paid). I don’t think it’s always a helpful way of looking at it because even when you LOVE your career, there are plenty of days when it’s a slog and you’re just doing the job.
But when you engage with the work – with what you’re doing – you’re putting your whole self in the mix. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the janitor or the CEO; if you truly engage with the work, wonderful things can happen! I’ve spent the past year engaging with the work I was doing – building a Program Office to improve the accessibility of our IT and digital content for people with disabilities – even though it was often just difficult and frustrating. But because I truly engaged with the work, what I was doing made a difference. We made tremendous progress and people took notice. I didn’t do it for recognition (though I did just win an award). I did it because a Relaxed Leader knows you can truly accomplish great things when you engage with the work you’re doing!
Engage with Creation:
Whether we think about it or not, we all interact with nature every day, through the air we breath, the sunlight we see, the wind we feel, the food we eat, and so much more. What would we do without the resources of this pale blue dot we call earth? But the earth – our common home – is in danger. A true Relaxed Leader can’t simply look the other way and ignore the science. We need to start engaging with the natural world and stop just taking advantage of it. This is one relationship none of us can afford to live without!
So how do you engage with creation?
Start by more frequently shifting your awareness away from the next task at hand and look at the natural world. Go take a walk in a park or down a country road, or just wander around your neighborhood if there are trees and plants and birds and other critters to see. The first step to engaging with creation is to be more mindful of it and try to appreciate the beauty and wonder of it all.
And remember what I explained early on: True engagement is a healthy, affirming, life-giving activity. When we strip resources from the earth, cut down forests to raise more cows for us to slaughter, generate literal mountains of trash, drive thousands of species to extinction every year, and do any number of other horrible, thoughtless things that are destroying the environment... it’s not healthy, affirming, or life-giving. Relaxed Leaders know we need to change our ways, truly engage with the rest of creation, and start repairing the damage we’ve caused before it’s too late.
Engage with the Self:
Although I saved this subtopic for last, it’s really the most important area of engagement. Relaxed Leaders need to learn to engage with themselves in healthy ways. If you’re like me, you’re a white guy in his mid-fifties… No, wait. Sorry. What I meant to say is that if you’re like me, you are your own worst critic. No matter how much I get accomplished, I know I could’ve done more. No matter how well something turned out, I know it could’ve been better. I’m not smart enough, funny enough, productive enough, strong enough, understanding enough, healthy enough, and on, and on, and on.
Being self-critical is almost always my initial reaction, regardless of what has happened. So I work very hard to engage with my “self.” I try to give myself the benefit of the doubt. I try to acknowledge that I’m not perfect and then let myself feel pleased with the way I continue to strive for personal growth.
I don’t think I come across as arrogant and I have never believed I’m “the smartest guy in the room,” but I have worked on displaying an appropriate level of self-confidence, especially when I’m leading a team. I know there have been many times when it was my show of confidence that made the difference, kept people on track, and gave some of the truly brilliant people in the room the courage they needed to step up and offer creative solutions.
If I hadn’t taken the time to know myself and learn to work effectively with all the thoughts and emotions swirling around inside, I wouldn’t have displayed the necessary confidence. It’s likely I would’ve displayed uncertainty or even turmoil.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter what’s going on inside your head and your heart – you need to engage with it and understand yourself in order to learn and grow. Because when you engage with yourself effectively, it makes all the other areas of engagement so much easier to tackle!
The bottom line:
To be Relaxed Leaders, we need to engage with life, the universe, and everything in healthy, affirming, life-giving ways. We don’t know everything. Hell, we CAN’T know everything! But if we have the courage and humility to acknowledge the fact that we don’t know it all, then it’s easy to see the true value of engagement.
As individuals, we’ll always be limited – but together, we can make tremendous progress. Together, we can all learn and grow. When we truly engage with all areas of our lives, we’ll find what we need in order to make progress towards a better world!