Unleashing a Culture of Engagement: The Role of Leadership 

John Scherer & Amy Barnes 

On March 16 we did a workshop on this topic for 10 YPO colleagues. This article, a summary of what happened, describes the powerful connection between leadership and engagement as well as their ultimate link to the survival your company. (Estimated reading time: 7 ½ minutes.)

Where Does Wisdom Exist in Your Organization? 

If someone were to watch your people at work, where would they deduce was the most wisdom or truth? Many leaders would likely answer along these lines: ‘If you observed us, you would probably conclude that wisdom exists at the top of our company: the higher up we go, the smarter we are. The smarter ones (our senior leaders) tell the next smarter ones (our middle managers) what to do, and they tell the next smarter ones (front line workers) what to do, and they do it—or not. It works, as long as everything is going OK, but when it isn’t, and people are not giving it their heart and soul, or we need breakthrough innovation to stay ahead of our competition, sometimes this top down wisdom thing doesn’t work.’ 

Our experience tells us that wisdom exists throughout your organization, top to bottom. In fact, your front line workers often know things that their managers—even you and your senior leaders—do not know, like about specifically what is really working, what is really not working, and what to do about it. They know where the ‘log jams’ are, and often have very creative ideas as to how to fix things. The problem is that most leaders and managers don’t seem to be able to get front line workers engaged enough—or trusting enough—to talk about what they see and then contribute what they know. 

As several YPO-ers said at the workshop, ‘If my front line people are so smart, why can’t we get them to help us create greater competitive advantage with their input?’ 

Your Company’s ‘Cultural Magnet’ 

There is a fundamental law governing all human systems: your organization’s culture is perfectly designed to get you exactly what you have now, including what is working and what is not working. You couldn’t have it any other way, given your culture. Here’s why. 

Imagine a sheet of paper filled with iron filings. Left alone, they will be pointing in all kinds of directions. Place a magnet under the paper and watch what happens: the iron filings immediately become aligned with the lines of force in the magnet’s field. 

Unleashing a Culture of Engagement 
The Role of Leadership 

Ypo culture of engagement

Applying this to your company, think of the iron filings as your people and the ‘magnet’ as you, the CEO/GM, giving and getting energy from your leadership core. Think of the ‘field’ that is being created as your culture (‘what’s really important—and the way we do things around here’). You and your leadership core are the only force in the system that has the responsibility, the power, and the permission to create and maintain that field of force lines, your cultural magnet. Every day, in every large and small action, in what you do and what you don’t do, you are reinforcing that magnet, contributing to the maintenance of a culture that is perfectly designed to get you what you have now. 

These lines of cultural magnetic force are invisible, but they are so strong that attempts to change or redirect the ‘iron filings’ in the system, like training, motivational sessions and even things like LEAN and Six Sigma cannot often succeed over time. Why? Because when the training is over, or the changes in the process have been made, the iron filings snap back into line with the magnetic field, which has not been affected. Any attempt at change or improvement that does not affect the cultural magnet is doomed to fail. 

There is also no way your cultural magnet, being kept in place by you and your leadership core, can be ‘turned off’. If you have no magnet the iron filings go everywhere. This is happening now in one client company that let its CEO go, and decided to put in her place a management-by-committee structure. The result: no magnet—or more accurately several magnets, each with a different field, and the people are wandering around, lost, trying to look busy, but having no clue what the mission is or they ought to be doing.

The Leadership-Engagement-Innovation Link

If engagement is not happening now as much as you would like, it is important to see the connections between what you are doing as the ‘keeper of the magnet’ and the results you are getting.

Ypo culture of engagement 2

As CEO/GM/Boss, you live at the center of your world. Every move you make, every word you say, everything you do—and do not do—sends a signal that reinforces the cultural ‘field’ and how it operates. Next comes your senior leadership team. They pick up the field’s direction from you, but ultimately, they are the power source for your magnet. They make sure the field stays in place, and are the primary ones to hand out the rewards and punishments to keep it going. This in turn, forces the next level of managers or supervisors to operate in alignment with the field, who then pass it on to your front line people—who, it must be said, pass it on to your customers.
Your company’s magnetic field is invisible and cannot be seen, but its lines of force can be deduced from what people do. What is clearly visible, however, are the policies, procedures and working practices that act as the framework or the parameters you’re your operations. They are tangible manifestations of your magnetic field.

How to Change Your Magnetic Field: The A–>B<–C Model

With all these factors keeping your magnet powered and in place, how can you change your company’s magnetic (cultural) field to engage and empower people to innovate in creative and profitable ways?

Behavior (B) is a function of two factors: Antecedents and Consequences. Antecedents (A) are all the things you do to try to get people to do something: training, inspirational talks, coaching, bonuses, threats, pleading, etc. Consequences (C) are what happens to the person who has done the desired behavior immediately after they have done it. Research has shown over and over that all the Antecedents in the world cannot result in people doing a new thing unless the Consequences are in alignment with that new Behavior.
Can you see now how your culture (the magnet) is a reflection of Consequences – what happens to people when they do the new thing. Right now, if people are not fully engaged in your company, it means in your culture’s magnetic field, the perceived risks still outweigh the benefits.
To change the magnetic field, you need to change the consequences so people get something they highly value when they do the new behavior—like getting fully engaged. Now we are not talking about reward and punishment in the traditional sense, e.g. money, as in a bonus for a good idea. Research has shown over and over that money is NOT a good motivator. Over time, bonuses actually cause performance to plateau. (See Dan Pink’s amazing TED Talk on this at http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html.)

You want engagement that leads to innovation? You and your leadership core need to find out what people value highly and then make sure they get some of that when they engage their hearts and souls in improving the company and its productivity.

But What Do They WANT?

The YPO group spent an hour of the four-hour session on this, saying, ‘We have tried everything, but these new hires (Generation Y people) just don’t respond!’ They probably don’t respond, not because there haven’t been enough Antecedents (training, speeches, performance targets, emails, etc), but because the right ‘currencies’ or rewards—think Consequences—aren’t in place.
Our experience, again borne out by research, is that most people, but especially the latest generation of workers, want the same things:

  • Autonomy (acting out of choice, to think for themselves, to innovate and create)
  • Responsibility (wanting to contribute something significant)
  • Relatedness (having trustworthy and meaningful relationships)
  • Development (they want to be learning and developing themselves at work)


Does your cultural magnet reinforce people in these ways? If not, you are going to be operating at less than 100% of your productivity capacity.

A Possible Solution: The Leadership and Engagement Process 

Based on our work with some of the best—and worst—performing companies, large and small, we have developed a self-directed process that engages your entire workforce in moving from where you are to where you need to be. Just doing the process creates a different and parallel magnetic field, one that invites—and reinforces—engagement, autonomy, responsibility, relatedness and development. The Consequences your people want are embedded in the process. . .

You and Your Leadership Core 

It starts with you and your colleagues: you must be authentically and courageously engaged and open to innovation yourselves before you can lead everyone else in an on going breakthrough process. You have to be ready for the breakthrough action recommendations that will emerge from your people, because they will come! And the actions they recommend will almost certainly be outside the comfort zone of some part of your organization – otherwise they would already be happening. . . 

Ypo culture of engagement 2 1

To get you and your team ready for transformation and into a breakthrough mindset, we recommend something like our 3 1/2-day Leadership Development Intensive (LDI), or any other similar experience, that invites individuals to step into their own personal transformation.

Your Middle Managers 

Once you and your senior leadership team are open and ready to embrace breakthrough ways of doing things, this attitude needs to be spread out to the next level, your middle managers, the ones who are guarding the company’s magnetic field and handing out the rewards and punishments to keep it in place. We have seen too many breakthrough projects fail in the end, even though the top and the bottom were 100% behind making change happen, because the middle managers dug in their heels and stopped initiatives in their tracks. When the middle ‘guardians’ also have a breakthrough experience, then things can really start to happen. (Perhaps Mirek can testify to how this works.) 

Your Front-Line People 

The next step in the process is the creation of a small ‘diagonal slice’ team, representing every level and department, trained to facilitate a series of meetings with every work team in the company, involving them in identifying operational ‘log jams’ affecting their productivity. (A great metaphor from productivity-improvement guru and colleague, Tor Dahl.) These opportunities are prioritized and the most important breakthrough areas are handed over to cross-functional Breakthrough Action Teams for further work into recommendations for action.

Summary and Implications for Action

If you want an engaged organization, you need to look at your cultural ‘magnet’ and determine whether it is currently reinforcing people actually bringing more of who they are to work. You and your senior leadership team are the power source for that magnet, so if there is going to be any change in your system, you are the ones who need to lead the ‘charge’ (just to stretch the magnet metaphor a little more). Training programs, while helpful as part of an effort to get individuals to make the shift to greater engagement, will not succeed without a parallel initiative to re-energize your cultural magnet. Bottom Line: ask your direct reports what they think about this article, and follow up by engaging the entire workforce in a process of identifying what is working, not working, and what you need to learn or develop.

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