The Responsibility for Self-Engagement

August 8, 2009

In my article entitled “My Bottom Line,” I outlined the main things that I profess when I teach organizational behavior.  The final three points on my list deal with partnership, performance, and caring.  I firmly believe there is no substitute for performance, and no substitute for caring – these are our fundamental responsibilities of work.  I also feel it is our responsibility to create interdependent, not dependent relationships with people at work.

I’ll say again that I love the concept of engagement, but I have concerns about how this concept is being applied in organizations.  You can find my articles about those concerns here and here

One of the clearest thinkers on engagement is Tom Britt of Clemson University.  I highly recommend his chapter entitled “Self-Engagement at Work” in the book Positive Organizational Behavior.  Britt and his colleagues add something to the conversation on engagement that I think is missing from the way most others talk about it – personal responsibility.

Because employees who are engaged in their work feel a sense of personal responsibility for their job performance, the outcomes that occur at work have greater implications for their identity.  Therefore, to be engaged in work is also to care about and be committed to performing well. (p.204).

Notice Britt asserts the self-engaged employee is committed to performing well, but he does NOT say that employee is committed to YOUR organization.  Britt makes that point clear in this research brief “Engaged employees are good, but don’t count on commitment.”

Is the organization’s responsibility to create engaged employees, or is the organization’s responsibility to provide the systems and resources where self-engaged employees can thrive?

Here is my concern: if we send our employees the message that their engagement is our responsibility, we create the conditions for dependent relationship.  Employees assume the posture of waiting to be engaged because our rhetoric and systems teach them this is what we expect. 

I think we should send the message that self-engagement is everyone’s responsibility.  Employees and managers share the responsibility to partner with each other to continuously improve processes and conditions necessary for peak performance to flourish.  I strongly believe that if employees don’t learn this posture of interdependence and self-responsibility as followers, they will never lead this way.  As leaders, they will continue to perpetuate and reward the dependent relationships they learned as followers. 

We can do better.  It matters.

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  1. Wally Bock says:

    Great post, Bret. I think that “engagement” has become the new “motivation.” It’s treated as a magic stone, which, if rubbed, will create unending prosperity and joy. It’s also treated as something we can do to/for the people on our teams. But we can’t. Engagement, like motivation, is an individual, situational choice. The best we can do is create an environment where it’s more likely and where the focus is on team performance, not only individual performance.

  2. Totally concur, Wally. Your final point on taking the focus off individual performance is I think an important one. But talk about a huge paradigm shift. Thanks, Wally!

  3. Michael Ling says:

    I remember very well that managers in my previous firms often asked people to get engaged. When I worked as a management consultant, we would normally engage our clients as much as possible. Being a manager, I ask my staff to engage.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong asking people to engage in whatever they are doing. In a way, it’s like telling people to get right into it – don’t just sit there and do nothing.

    Lou Gerstner told us in his book “Who says elephants can’t dance” that he had a sign in his office, which says:

    There are four kinds of people;

    Which kind of people you would like your people to be in your organization, and which kind do you think most people, and us, would probably be?

    In my experience, I seldom found type I but met lots of the other types at work and in life.

    I felt engagement is a process that we can legitimize and endorse it in front of our people. Its aim is about getting people’s behavior changed.

    It’s a process that constitutes a series of actions. We are not supposed to link it to performance or results. There isn’t a causal relationship between the two.

  4. Michael: I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. It is very interesting that you say we are NOT supposed to link engagement to performance or results as there is no causal relationship between the two. There is more truth to that than most people realize, unfortunately.

    Thanks for taking the time to stop by and share!


  5. Bret hi – this is the telling question for me…
    “Is the organization’s responsibility to create engaged employees, or is the organization’s responsibility to provide the systems and resources where self-engaged employees can thrive?”
    when you step back and look at ‘what the organisation is”, it is clearly a mix of leaders, managers and employees.
    I agree with your comments on self-engagement, but clearly managers (and senior leaders) have a massive part to play in creating an environment where employees are engaged – and to that end, managers should recognise that if employees are not engaged, the ‘managers and leaders’ have much to answer for. They recruited the staff, trained them and manage them. Clearly, each employee must take responsibility for their own actions, but management (at all levels) .
    I recently wrote this post which may add someting to your ‘followers’ discussion.


  6. Richard: Thank you very much for taking the time to share your thoughts. As I said in my post “employees and managers share the responsibility to partner with each other to continuously improve processes and conditions necessary for peak performance to flourish.”

    I hold management to a high standard, so in that respect you and I are on the same page.

    Yet I have a strong message for followers: even if your leadership is not providing you conditions that facilitate engagement, that does NOT relieve YOU of the responsibility to engage at work and to engage with your leadership to make conditions better.

    I really appreciate your time and effort responding to this post. Thanks!! Bret

  7. Lance Haun says:

    Fantastic post Bret. I love the change in dynamic from organizations that want to be responsible for keeping their employees engaged to organizations that focus on creating a space for self-engaged employees to thrive.

    Giving is good but not at the expense of people not learning how to provide for themselves. Becoming a teacher and transitioning into a facilitator is better.

  8. Susan Penn says:

    Your points are excellent Brett. When leading my previous team, I communicated the fact that each of us was responsible for the environment we created. Having the team build and create what they wanted this environment to be resulted in a mutually held responsibility for the creation and sustainability of that environment. The belief that it is the company or the manager’s responsibility for employee engagement is a control based model that cannot succeed. On the other hand, it is up to the Managers and leaders within an organization to be open to and encourage the manifestations of engagement, i.e., ideas, innovation, creativity, ownership, showcasing others abilities and talents, transparency, honesty, etc!

  9. Bret, I enjoyed your article and agree with everything you say. It is critical that people (employees) become more aware of what is expected of them in the corporate community; they should not leave that up to senior leadership.

    I have found that many organizations do not focus on this (self engagement) from the beginning of a new hire experience. Employee engagement is something that employers track, but something that the employees are not mindful of. Employees need to understand how they fit into the culture and what is expected of them, and how that benefits them, their development and their future.

  10. Hello Mr. Simmons,

    I agree with your comment response;

    “Yet I have a strong message for followers: even if your leadership is not providing you conditions that facilitate engagement, that does NOT relieve YOU of the responsibility to engage at work and to engage with your leadership to make conditions better.”

    However, as an employment mediator I have found the one critical element in a truly successful employment experience for leaders and followers is the near non-existent mindset for basic employee rights awareness, education and training.

    I educate and coach many college grads, career seekers and employee on the importance of learning basic employee rights BEFORE seeking and ACCEPTING a position with an organization. Why? When one enters a workplace armed with the knowledge of what the workplace should offer and expect in return for the followers “responsibility to engage…”

    the issues that develop into potentially negative conflict are greatly diminished, at least from the employees side. As you point out, “even if your leadership is not providing you conditions that facilitate engagement,” all to often incompetent management structures routinely violate employee workplace rights.

    This is often due to the fact employers don’t invest time or resources in education and training their “leaders” concerning basic employee rights. Thus, an environment of negative conflict, distrust and low morale takes the place of “partnership, performance, and caring”.

  11. Lance: I totally concur with your point about being a teacher and facilitator. Consider yourself a resource, not THE source.

    Susan: Your points are excellent. We are entirely on the same page. Create the environment you want and need to excell – love that!

    Stuart: You make a great point about how this is a cultural thing that should be communicated BEFORE folks are hired. That way people could select themselves into or out of this self responsible environment. So true that employers track but employees really don’t care because they don’t have to.

    Lance, Susan, Stuart – thanks for taking the time and effort to share your thoughts. I appreciate it very much. Thanks! Bret

  12. Yancy:

    I appreciate the time and effort you put into your comment. I can’t disagree with anything you have to say. Knowing your rights is fundamental, but so is knowing your responsibilities. And one of MY responsibilities is to know my rights and the rights of my constituents.

    I am keen to make sure my rights are not violated, but I am even more keen to making sure I am bringing MORE than what my employer ever expected from me to work. I do that for me, its just the right thing to do.



  13. Randi Sandlin says:

    All good points and great discussion. Bottom line:
    I don’t know anyone who jumps out of bed looking forward to being unhappy all day long. I am sure they are out there and I hope they take their meds. People doing what they love is the key; and it is the responsibility of each of us to say honestly “this is” or it “is not” working for me. We each need to find our fit, our excitement, and then the “engagement” is basically moot because we really enjoy what we do. We need courage to make the move if it is the wrong position. Mentors, managers, pastors, friends, and family who help us identify and support our decisions as we evolve through our career journey are invaluable. If an organization has help like that, great. If not, it is our responsibility to find our direction.

  14. Randi: Very well said. I concur. It IS our responsibility to find the work we can engage in. It does take courage to move on for the right reasons, but in the end we learn we can survive and thrive because of it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  15. Rob says:

    Agreed. Engagement, to be enduring as a force for change, needs to be self directed. However, leadership can help create the conditions for people to accomplish this; this is, for me, a principle leadership accountability, as engagement is a pre-requisite for successful change.

    For practical tools and exercises that help to inspire higher engagement, please see:



  16. Rob: Sincerely appreciate your thoughts. Concur that a responsibility of leadership is to creat the context for excellence to flourish. Not sure I agree about engagement being necessary for change. At this point, like a lot of stuff on engagement, my belief is that statement is anecdotal and not supported by any peer reviewed research I have seen. Thanks for taking the time to share! Bret