A true story:
Recently I did a demo at work on something technical.
The audience was an informal group of staffers who meet once a week to share information, brainstorm, and laugh. Well not expressly to laugh but it doesn't hurt to work with people who have a good sense of humor.
In any case, I hauled out the laptop and connected it to the monitor and started briefing. What is this, why do we need it, what is the proposed solution...
Suddenly out of nowhere one of the people in the meeting, who works in a completely different area, starts talking about a topic related to the demo. The person brings up a technology-related idea that has unbelievable potential for the agency.
Not being a very formal group we want to hear more about the idea now; the demo can wait a minute. Especially since the idea is just as core to the business strategy as the demo. We are charged up!
Now instead of one person being engaged in one thing, another in another thing, and not much movement on either, we have an entire roomful of people on fire.
The conversation goes back to the demo, briefly, and then it drifts out again.
After an hour and a half we didn't finish the demo totally. We didn't get to watch the brief episode of a really funny television show that featured us and relates to our mission. Which had me cracking up when I saw the preview. And we didn't get to go over everyone's stuff.
But the level of engagement in that room was so high! And we had discovered not one but two people who had the potential to contribute not only where they were, but to cross-office projects as well. That means in-house expertise that we otherwise would have had to pay a consulting fee for, or get someone from another group to contribute when everyone is on overload with their projects.
When you think about the subject of employee engagement, often the assumption is that strategy is something dictated from on high and we all, like kindergarteners, are just supposed to "get on board" as if strategy were a choo-choo train.
(Actually once a leader at another organization where I worked did actually urge us to "get on the train" with respect to strategy. He meant "so that you won't be left behind" but me being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors I couldn't help but think of the train to Auschwitz and I had an intense desire to stay right where I was. Yes I know - I can be very intense and depressing.)
Real engagement actually ADDS to the strategy. Not only are people excited to do what leadership sees is important, but they come up with new ways to do it that previously were unheard of. In the process they may modify the vision a bit, but that's OK, because they make the concept theirs and serve as "ambassadors" (I dislike that word but it's true) to evangelize for it in places corporate communication can't reach - the water cooler, the office microwave, the food court, and yes, even in restroom chatter.
At the meeting the staffer who initially offered the demo-related idea apologized for talking too much at the meeting. As if they had had the experience of being shut down before; as if they were worried that someone from a lower level of the food chain should not steal the thunder of someone higher. I understood the worry but honestly, my mind was someplace completely else. I was thinking about all the evolutionary, revolutionary, time-saving and productivity-enhancing technology-based upgrades we could employ in the agency if every single person had the knowledge and enthusiasm of this one person.
After the meeting a couple of my friends, including the other tech-savvy person, stopped by to chat. We uttered a collective, "Wow" - as if we had just seen someone start speaking Greek fluently out of nowhere. It was just amazing to see what can happen if you shut up and let people talk. Not trying to own or take credit for everything, but opening up the floor to all the talent that is there.
Maybe that's the true meaning of diversity and inclusion. Not to "tolerate" people who are different than us, but to let down our defenses and stop being so insecure and encourage talent wherever it is, whatever it looks like, however it sounds, and whenever we hear it.
Have a good day everyone, and good luck!
P.S. All are welcome to join the Federal Communicators Network Lunch & Learn Webinar this January 19 for our dial-in webinar on employee engagement, featuring Chris Gay. This event, tailored to government employees, is free; click here to register.
Photo by Yoppy via Flickr
Note: I am the chair of the Federal Communicators Network, an independent group focused on providing free training to federal communicators to help them serve the taxpayer. All opinions are my own.