Language of Employee Engagement: Stop Using “Drive” Start Using “Facilitate”

If you have time look up the definition of the word “drive.” You may be surprised with the results. The first definition in the Merriam-Webster online is to “frighten or prod in a desired direction.” Most of the rest of the choices in definition included the words “force” or “cause.”

Very often I see articles about improving employee performance or employee engagement with titles that include the word drive: “How to Drive Performance… or How to Drive Employee Engagement… etc.” Is “drive” the correct word to use? Is this the most useful thinking for an effective leader?

A leader’s language is a reflection of how he/she thinks. How the leader thinks will determine his/her actions. How a leader thinks about people and problems determines the decisions he/she makes and the policies he/she support.

Stop using “Drive”

Some of the language we use doesn’t fit the employee engagement model. Our language often damages engagement without our knowledge. Drive is one of those words to avoid because it suggests thoughts and encourages actions that are contrary to those required to sustain employee engagement. Engagement is a delicate condition that can easily be damaged, often unknowingly. Engagement is a subjective emotional state within the minds of employees. It can be quite fleeting if the conditions in the environment don’t consistently support it.

Recently, while delivering a training program at a client, the manager told me he needed to step out of the training to participate in a staff meeting because an employee had “acted out” the day before and the staff needed to be reminded “that type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” I asked him how long the meeting would take and therefore, how long he would be out of the training. He said, “15 minutes at most.” He was out over 45 minutes. His excuse for being late was his senior management needed to discuss other issues that would help drive performance.

Instead of making it easier for my participant to gain fully from my training program his managers put up a road block by forcing him to stay later than his agreement with me. They needed to “drive” his performance. This type of leadership sends mixed messages to employees. Mixed messages can damage engagement. Think about it for a moment, would you have been more engaged or less engaged by those decisions and mixed messages? Furthermore, sending mixed messages and limiting employee choices can often create “acting out” behavior the very reason for the meeting in the first place.

Start Using “Facilitate”

To facilitate means to make easier. In contrast, driving means to frighten or prod. Which do you think creates greater, more predictable, and more sustainable employee engagement “driving or facilitating” performance? Which will create greater results?

Leaders who think in terms of “driving performance” will have a tendency to take action first and insist their employees take action. In a “drive” environment often the action the employee must take is often the one his/her manager insists upon.

These “drive” leaders will look for heroes (or heroines) who fix problems so they can be rewarded. I have seen how this type of leadership encourages some high performers to actually create problems so they can step in a fix them to get credit or rewards. This is only one unintended consequence of talent management programs. These leaders will reward action over reflection. They will reward results over relationships.

Leaders who drive performance tend to have less trust and create a “management dependent” environment instead of a “self-management” environment. Management dependent means employees rely too heavily on what management wants. This slows response to change and, at worst, can lead to a bureaucracy. In contrast, a “self-management” environment allows employees freedom to act within a context (set of parameters). This accelerates decision making and problem solving.

Leaders who facilitate look for employees who can fix the root causes so problems don’t re-surface. They value reflection as much as action. They understand that learning can only occur with action combined with reflection. Facilitator leaders trust their people. They place a greater value on predictable processes than they do on identifying heroes through talent management.

Leaders who are facilitators listen more and learn more. They are able to identify new ideas that often come from their employees. They recognize and value an emotionally healthy environment. They are willing to allow people to “self-manage”. They spend more time on strategic thinking and less time on people problems.

Start using the word facilitate in place of the word drive. It will make a huge difference in how you think about your role as a leader. It will open up new ways to working with people and will create new opportunities for improvement.

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