By John Langhorne/Consulting
When I started consulting, it was called participation, then it was called involvement, later it was empowerment and today it’s engagement; it’s all the same.
Recently, I was in a meeting where a group of senior managers shared the processes they were using in their organizations to actively engage their people. The round robin was impressive in the breadth and depth of the programs.
In 1985, Mary Kay Ash, a lady who put lots of women into pink Cadillacs, wrote a book titled “Mary Kay On People Management.”
This thin book is filled with nuggets of wisdom; one of the best is “people support what they help create.” This is the shortest and sweetest definition of engagement that exists. Here is the important point about engaging your people in the process of improving how the work gets done: it works.
The Gallup Organization is one of the world’s largest management consulting companies and they are masters of survey research. This measurement ability combined with a deep interest in fostering productivity and employee well-being, driven by the engagement process, makes them a prime resource for organizations moving in this direction. Earlier this year, Gallup released a poll titled, “Engagement At Work: Its Effects Continue In Tough Economic Times.”
The survey sampled 1.4 million employees in almost 50,000 companies. On nine key variables comparisons of companies in the top and bottom quartiles of engagement the results are dramatic. To see the graph and text, visit
I am always bemused at the companies that use consultants who bring in complex assessments and intricate strategies. Really effective change tools are always relatively simple. What is needed is skilled front-line managers and leaders who understand how to initiate and nurture such processes.
Consider these two principles for managing people in organizations:
• The better informed people are, the better they perform.
• The closer the decision is made to the work, the better the decision.
Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the Earth.” To initiate and implement engagement an understanding and appropriate mix of decision-making types is the preferred lever. Consider these four flavors of decision-making:
Authoritarian is top-down decision making without corresponding communication as to why. It has the advantage of being very fast but at the cost of limiting any input from others into the decision. Authoritarian decision-making is most appropriate in emergency or crisis situations where the chain of command is clear, roles are well defined and understood and people are well-trained. An example is a group of firefighters at a fire scene or a squad of soldiers in combat.
Authoritative decision-making is more a sophisticated version of authoritarian. Many effective managers have a primarily authoritative style. They retain control of the decision but explain how and why they made it. Actually, this means using decision-making as a method to communicate the “why” of issues to employees and this approach is usually respected by employees. Almost all employee development situations, from classes to coaching, are authoritative. This type of decision-making requires excellent communication skills and when used respectfully, is a powerful tool.
Consultative is the Mary Kay approach; get people involved early in the process and make it clear that final decision making still rests with management. Use your people as consultants in the decision process. First-level managers and employees respond favorably to this approach when it is well-executed. It will yield a ton of useful information and ideas for change.
Consensual is the Japanese way: Let’s talk about this until we all agree and then do it. This method maximizes input but it can be terribly slow to reach consensus. To be effective, it requires that team members are committed to a common purpose, have sufficient information to make the decision and are highly inter-personally skilled.
Consensus often yields less than optimal and risk-averse results; consider the jury. The leader must be certain that the outcome is one she can live with, to reverse such a group decision can be a morale buster, regardless of how poor the decision.
Authoritarian and authoritative are command decisions, whereas consultative and consensual are collaborative. As in any continuum, the preferred approach comes from the middle. The use of authoritative and consultative decision-making educates people as it engages them in change.
Advice to leaders: Mary Poppins’ rule, “Well begun is half done.” The middle mix of decision making must be in a process that sets the stage, invites employees to engage, results in usable outcomes and is successful the first time out to build credibility for the process. Begin at a location where the process has the greatest likelihood of succeeding. When employees experience a successful process, the good word spreads quickly. Try it. Thoughtfully planned and executed, you’ll like it.
John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.