People want to be enabled, not engaged

By Bev Attfield

5 min read

People want to be enabled, not engaged
Image by Grey Vaisius

Organizations have been trying to engage their people for decades. The result? A negligible shift in Gallup’s renowned data and more employee discontent than ever before (look no further than the revolving office door for proof). To be fair, the pandemic might have something to do with the latter more recently, but organizations are by no means off the hook. 

In fact, it’s the very structure and complexity of organizations and the way they contain people, that’s led to the high degree of disengagement. After all, the state of engagement is years in the making, by organizations, HR departments, and leaders not fully understanding what people need at work or simply focusing on the wrong things. You know what I mean, we’re all tired of beer taps and office dogs, not to mention those annual engagement surveys that throw employee voices into a void.

So why then would we continue to chase the holy grail of the “engaged employee”? Surely if we learned anything when the world of work turned upside down, it’s time for a change. And now we might actually be able to make a considerable shift in thinking about the purpose and potential of people in organizations of all shapes and sizes. 


The case for people enablement

So in the absence of doing nothing (which may actually be better than futile and annoying attempts at engagement), what should organizations do? Instead of trying to make people like their work and the place they do it, how about setting them free to work and then support every aspect of that endeavour? This is what employee enablement is all about. 

The difference between engagement and enablement is like being alive versus truly living. The simple state of being alive implies a pulse but no more. When you’re truly living, you marvel, move, experience, and explore. Which state of employee would you like?

Enablement is the optimal form of human-centric work culture and practices. When you’re enabling people, you’re getting out of their way and giving them full control. Engagement on the other hand tends to get in the way of people and their progress. It’s like that annoying person at the movies who just won’t keep quiet and let you enjoy the full immersive experience of Dune. 

As the folks at Google discovered when studying drivers of team performance, when people are enabled at work, engagement doesn’t need to be something you strive for. It happens quite happily on its own, especially when you’ve achieved clarity and alignment. Think about your own work experiences. Have you ever felt plugged in, energized, and supported by people, tools, efficient processes, and resources? If yes, how did that make you feel about your team and broader organization? I’ll go out on a limb and say that it felt pretty good. You felt valued, contributing, and wait for it… engaged.


Obstacles to achieving enablement

So why haven’t we realized sooner that enablement is really what we should be striving for? After all, enablement has a much more clear path to the bottom line since it’s a measure of how well employees are able to work, connect, and progress. 

We’ve needed a seismic event to help us realize that engagement isn’t the driver for employee and organizational well-being. Supporting work-life integration, providing autonomy, and being compassionate to individual needs is what’s needed. The tremendous shift in work thanks to the pandemic has given us an opportunity to enable rather than engage.

But even with this shift in play, enablement is still easier said than done. That’s likely due to three obstacles:

  • Leaders aren’t ready, willing, or equipped to do the work needed to truly enable their people.
  • Organizational structures and processes are hardwired to limit autonomy and flexibility, increasing clutter and noise along the way.
  • Individuals are still learning how to demand and look for enablement in their present and future jobs.


Getting to enablement

So what happens if we abandon our attempts at engagement? Surely trying to engage and fail is better than not having tried at all. Unfortunately, most engagement attempts quickly erode trust and belief in your organization. 

Let’s let bygones be bygones. We’ve tried engagement. It didn’t work. So why not give something else a shot? Honestly, we’ve got everything to lose. If we keep on the engagement track, workplaces and the people in them won’t realize their full potential. 

Switching to enablement will take some fresh thinking and hard work at every level. Plus, there’s no one size fits all people enablement strategy. You’ll need to tinker to see what works for your people and organization. 

Here are a few ways to start building a culture of enablement:

  • Socialize the idea of enablement within small teams. Then take what you’ve heard and have a strategy session with your executive team for real-time feedback. Agree on one tweak to a process or norm to unlock better ways of working for everyone.
  • Look at your leadership style and the culture of leadership at work. What can you do to clear the way for people to own their work and make their own decisions? 
  • Think about training and career development. What can you add to your own leadership toolset and organization-wide training to help people develop and excel faster? 
  • Consider what you’re measuring when you evaluate performance. Is there anything outdated? Are you measuring engagement rather than enablement
  • Unblock people who want to contribute. There are likely dozens of people and places in your organization where work and progress is blocked for some reason. Get rid of outmoded attitudes, rigid processes, resistance to change, “that’s how we’ve always done it”, and other excuses to pave the way for enablement. 
  • Left wanting more? Here are eight more best practices for facilitating employee enablement.


Enable, and engagement will follow

I’ve come down pretty hard on engagement in this article, and for good reason. Nothing changes if nothing changes. If we really want to craft a different and more productive experience for humans in their work, we must think beyond engagement. 

Some might argue there’s enough evidence to correlate higher employee productivity and well-being with higher engagement. That may well be true, but there are too many other variables (team dynamics, leadership competency, company funding, workplace culture, to name a few) involved to singularly declare this a win for engagement.

Enablement is the path to employee success. Simply trying to engage people doesn’t do them any favours. Intentional, strategic support along with tools and attitudes to get the job done and celebrated while spurring personal growth, is far more helpful and meaningful. 

As I’ve alluded to already, if we take this approach we ultimately get both enabled and engaged people coming to work every day. Why wouldn’t we choose this option?


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Bev Attfield

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