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Coming to grips with “the intangibles”

by John Guaspari

Very broadly stated, business leaders have two categories of responsibilities to attend to: 1) the tangible, measurable-to-n-significant-digits hard stuff; and 2) the intangible, perhaps-measurable-but-only-by-proxy-at-best soft stuff. Most leaders are more comfortable working in category #1 since they also generally have a bias toward logical, rational, data-driven approaches to the issues at hand.

I raise these points in the context of the current infatuation with “employee engagement,”a concept that pretty clearlyfalls into category #2.  What makes an intangible like engagement palatable to so many logical, rational, data-driven types is the existence of ample and compelling research demonstrating a strong positive correlation between employee engagement levels and better business results.  In other words, there are plenty of facts and data to soothe leaders’ anxieties as they venture out onto such Kumbaya-ish terrain.

There’s another, somewhat less statistically rigorous strategy leaders employ as a way to mitigate their aversion to really digging intothe intangibles.  They punt.

Here’s how it works.  One definition of engagement connotes interaction or connection, such as gears engaging in a transmission or opposing armies engaging on a battlefield. Business leaders will often strive to foster this kind of engagement by holding all-hands meeting to increase the amount of team interaction and by ensuring that such meetings include breakout sessions so that team members can make even broader and deeper connections.  All perfectly rational and logical, yes?

Actually, no, it’s not.  Here’s why.

The definition of engagement that informed all of that ample and compelling research is this:  The extent to which an individual is moved to invest additional effort and energy in the tasks at hand. This is significantly different from the interaction/connection definition.

So while leaders may appear to be coming to grips with engagement with their all-hands meetings and breakout sessions, they are actually substituting the interaction/connection definition with which they are more comfortable for the less comfortable intangible definition, i.e. the definition that’s at the core of all of that ample, compelling research.  This is roughly equivalent to going to the dentist and participating in close-order marching maneuvers instead of having your cavities filled so that the drilling won’t be so painful.

All-hands meetings and breakout sessions are pretty tangible things that fall pretty well within most leaders’ comfort zones.  Plus, they’re pretty easy to pull off.

Getting people to invest additional energy and effort on the job is a far more intangible goal.  Doing so requires plumbing the depths of just what makes living, breathing human beings tick, which in turn stretches things out of those comfort zones.  And even if you roll up your sleeves and try, there’s no getting around it; it’s bloody hard to do.

So there’s a fork in the road.  One path reads:  “Tangible, Comfortable, Easy.”  The other path reads:  “Intangible, Uncomfortable, Hard.”  Guess which one will be more heavily trafficked?

Engagement isn’t the only intangible to which this sort of skewed reasoning applies.I once saw a business president who was frustrated at survey results indicating that empowerment levels throughout the company were lower than he would have liked.So he turned to his leadership team and proclaimed, “You are all empowered! Now I need you to go out there and make sure all of your people know that they’re empowered, too!!”  (Commanding officer to troops:  “All liberty is hereby canceled until morale improves!”)

Then there was the Vice President who wanted to kick-off the company’s new “Respect Program” by having seven, eight-foot-high, three-dimensional letters line the driveway—R-E-S-P-E-C-T—to the employee parking lot.  (The Stonehenge-scale ridiculousness of the letters themselves served as a distraction from the ridiculousness of even considering launching a “Respect Program” in the first place.)

Their category #1 bias inclines leaders toward neat, directive, hospital-cornered approaches to whatever challenges are at hand.  But a desire for tidiness does not constitute proof of the absence of messiness.  The first step in coming to grips with the intangibles is to embrace the fact that they are…intangible.  You might just as well, since you can’t embrace the intangibles themselves.


About the Author

John Guaspari is an employee engagement expert and author of the new book Otherwise Engaged: How to Get a Firmer Grip on Employee Engagement and Other Key Intangibles*  *If, That Is, It Were Possible to Grip Something That’s Intangible (Maven House Press) from which this article was adapted.  Visit his website: www.johnguaspari.com .

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