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What is Talent Engagement?

One of the simplest ways to understand "engagement" is to observe a situation where people are clearly disengaged... We know the symptoms without needing explanation: they are paying attention to something other than what they were asked to show up for, or they are trying to pay attention and, frankly, getting either aggravated or bored.

Arguably, if you are the party that invited them, the first case is definitely worse for you than the second case. When they show up and spend the time literally attending to something that does not require you, it is clear that they aren't bringing the one thing that we should call being engaged. And that is, they want you to be doing what you're doing, for them.

In other words, they're not invested.

The importance of seeing engagement this way is in acknowledgeing that it is not about some general sense of well being or belonging. It isn't "about" loyalty, or faith, or empathy.

It is about giving something for a purpose, and having that contribution taken as support for an effort made to give something back. In this relationship, the critical factors are found in expectation, reliability, mutual visibility, and acknowledgement. We know from experience that these are critical factors because when one or more of them is damaged or missing, the onset of disengagement is generally a pretty high probability.

Engaging talent is always significant in at least two ways. When we think of an individual as being "a talent", we're simply saying that we think we know what that individual might be likely to contribute that is on its own already somewhat valuable. This tells us that if it is offered to us, that event was a decision - a choice made by that individual when they had alternatives. Additional to that, the actual type of contribution is something that can be a key ingredient of the kind of thing that we are trying to create. In the best cases, the contributor knows this. Said differently, the contributor is making a creative choice. That decision is the investment.

Two questions follow on that thought.

One: what is the return on that investment?

In the conventional mindset of "performance", management has looked at the impact of the investment on the impact of managed operations. It looked at the operations impact as the "return", without the more fundamental issue of whether the contributor got what they wanted or needed. "Compensation" is the key concept for rationalizing this view of ROI; it is further codified by the principle that a contributor "shares" in the benefit of the operations impact and thereby gets a return. But the problem with this is easy to spot: the easiest way to manage benefit sharing is to either grant it or withhold it, not to calibrate it sensitively to the needs or preferences of the contributors. Performance-triggered formulas for defining benefit shares are absolutely the management standard of most medium-to-large sized enterprises. Primarily, people are interested in whether those are fair. But no one sees it as engagement - instead it is at best seen as incentive. Incentive is not a "return". And performance management systems are a large complex On/Off switch for granting or withholding.

Two: so, how should engagement be based, so that the return on the individual's contribution is authentic?

Here, the answer grows from remembering that the contribution is the individual's creative choice, made to support an effort that is carried out for the contributor. Staying close to those two conditions, we recognize that co-creation is the type of relationship that results; and that type of relationship is the return.

So, if that type of relationship is the "best case", what prevents the best case from being the current state?

Part of the answer is in acknowledging that by being distinctive and impactful talent inherently leads. It represents and demonstrates particular possibilities and opportunity for those who are willing to embrace it. But leadership, which is a state, is effective only when it is accompanied by followers. (Logicians would say that its effectiveness is, therefore, an "attribute", not a "property".) We need to be aware that talent, as leadership, can be misplaced. It does not lose its inherent value, but the effect of talent is in its influence. Organizations that do not design-in the opportunity to influence will neutralize any effectiveness of talent, and consequently, talent will disengage.

The other part of the answer offered here is in the increasingly interesting prospect of self-organization. The focus of intensive study and interest for the last four or more years, self-organizing is sometimes baffling and other times just obvious, as being a condition highly dependent on engagement. Ordinary history tells us that people have an instinct for self-organizing as groups when they are confronted with urgency in an important challenge - whether that be a catastrophe or an ephemeral but exciting opportunity. This article will not go into the deep water of research on self-organization. However, dependency on engagement is the way to point at the big shift in mindset about managing organizations. If the organization exists primarily for the purpose of doing something specific, and it cannot do it without effective contributions from its practice-level (functional) members, then the basis of its cohesiveness cannot be found in shareholders; it can only be found in being stakeholders. Stakeholders decide how it can function and perform under the pressure of real-time demand. If a talent is denied stakeholder status, that talent will disengage.

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