Civic Engagement. Community Engagement. Employee Engagement

Back to Summer 2019: Volume 108, Number 2

By Stacy Schweikhart

The term engagement is all the rage these days. In the last several years countless books, workshops and blog posts acclaimed the virtues of engagement. Likewise, new civic-tech digital platforms and survey tools to measure and implement engagement abound. Engagement experts dot nearly every conference schedule. For the most part, the engagement focus is external.

Here’s the thing most organizations, including local governments, are often missing – you can’t do external engagement well if you aren’t already knocking it out of the park on your internal engagement. Engage your citizens and your community all you want, but if you haven’t first put forth the effort to engage internally, you haven’t created the systems for the culture necessary to turn the results of the external engagements in to meaningful and sustainable wins for your organization.

There is no wrong method of engagement, so long as your efforts are intentional and authentic. To be effective, you must clearly understand your own leadership style and your willingness to truly surrender control of the outcome. Understand the capacity of your team and be realistic about the resources at your disposal when you seek to identify the best engagement method for each step of internal engagement.

Certainly, simply informing your internal team is not going to win you any engagement innovation awards. But let’s be honest. For most organizations being really good at keeping your internal team informed would be a major victory. This is particularly true when the challenge is communicating regularly about an intangible effort, versus the relative ease of providing updates on a construction or technology implementation project.

Still, if we consider engagement as a continuum as experts such as those at IAP2 suggest, let’s remember that if we aren’t covering the first step of consistently, effectively informing our team, we can’t possibly focus on any other part of the engagement process. So, let’s start there.

An example of applying the “inform” approach to an internal engagement might be your intentional commitment to explaining the foundations of servant leadership and why it matters to you on a regular basis to your team. Maybe this takes the form of a section in your normal internal email update. Maybe you opt to create short videos to distribute digitally. Maybe you make it a topic for in person staff meetings or more informal team building events within your organization.

At the next step of the continuum you would engage your team to gain feedback on your intent to transform your culture into one focused on servant leadership. In doing so, it will be critical that you very clearly and honestly communicate that their feedback is valuable to you because you want to understand their perceptions, not because you can guarantee that their feedback will change the outcome. You are consulting them, not involving them.

It may sound harsh. In a way it is, but authenticity isn’t always about hearts and rainbows. By being clear from the beginning that your intent is to understand, you put to rest any misconceptions that feedback will influence your next steps. This alone can prevent the entire effort from derailing later due to an uprising that you didn’t listen to advice provided.

It would be pretty unusual for someone who is truly a servant leader to take this approach. It is in many ways contrary to the core of servant leadership overall. Yet it may be the appropriate internal engagement method for certain stages of the process.

The next level of engagement certainly is the first that feels intrinsically in line with the fundamentals of servant leadership. It is also the first that feels relevant to the way most of us conceive the purpose of engagement. At this level you not only intentionally involve members of your team to collect their feedback, but you incorporate that feedback in to the formulation of how the effort evolves.

An actual internal engagement scenario at this level may play out like this:

You present your plans for shifting to or emphasizing servant leader culture to your high-level management team and seek their feedback on the plans. You then return to your office or to your small leadership team and incorporate their feedback. The key distinction is that their feedback at this engagement level has the ability to influence your plans. Of course, as with other levels of engagement, the critical component often overlooked is clearly communicating that you are seeking feedback and that feedback will be taken into account as plans are finalized.

A truly collaborative approach is the pinnacle of internal engagement. If you hold true to this level of engagement it is also the first approach where you surrender control of the final outcome. Starting at the very beginning, you ask your top-level managers to learn more about servant leadership. With a base understanding you then facilitate a conversation about the potential to shift to or emphasize servant leader culture in your organization. You do so entirely either confident that they will go along with the plan or willing to dismiss the effort if they are not in support of pursuing the transformation. You orchestrate a planning session to determine how the effort will roll out in your organization and the group process leads to a consensus action plan that all will support.

It goes without saying that a cultural transformation which results from this level of internal engagement has the best chances of success. Why? Ownership of the process.

Here’s an interesting twist. What if in this stage you didn’t collaborate with the same top-level managers who are always part of shaping city projects? What if instead you went an extra step to ask each of them to appoint a representative from their departments? This brave approach results in even greater surrender of control and an even deeper sense of ownership within the organization.

Carefully consider which method of engagement best suits your efforts to spark cultural transformation. Most importantly, whichever you choose – follow through.

The fastest way to kill an initiative is to starve it. Starve it of your time, your persistence and your attention.

This happens often quite unintentionally. The day to day responsibilities don’t go away in lieu of your efforts to create a servant leader culture in your organization. Schedules get overwhelmed. Meetings get canceled. Implementations get delayed. Seemingly more pressing matters emerge. And just like that you have signaled that other things are the priority. And gradually, the entire idea fades away.

The consequence reaches beyond just the demise of the cultural transformation. You have also demonstrated to your team that improving culture is not important, and, in essence, they aren’t important. Your investment in the environment where your teams spend more waking hours than they do at home with their families is your most valuable contribution as a servant leader.

Your lack of attention to culture translates in to a lack of ability as a leader. Disturbances in your organizational culture will manifest over time, come what may. It will reveal itself in high turnover rates; in absence of strong recruiting pools; in reduced productivity; in apathy toward employee recognition programs; and in decreased participation for once popular employee events.

In authentic servant leader organizations, a healthy culture comes down to one simple question:

What are you making? What are you, as a supervisor or manager, making?

At the end of the day, or end of the fiscal year, or end of the project plan you deem yourself successful how? If the answer has anything to do with bottom line or completion date – you are wrong and yours is not a servant leader culture. Your success, or your failure, is your people.

Your culture is your people. The success of your organization is not up to you. It is up to your people. Your people and your culture will determine your ability to thrive in spite of the challenges.

You can set goals to improve your community and citizen engagement, but to ensure long-term sustainable efforts you have to start inside your organization. You must create the structures and processes internally so that all employees adapt to and learn to emphasize the power of engagement.

(Editor’ note: This article is an excerpt from Stacy Schweikhart’s recently published book which offers a step-by-step guide to establishing a culture of engagement, Building Brands & Creating Cultures of Authentic Servant Leadership.)

Stacy Schweikjart serves as Director of Strategy and Engagement for the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission. She is an active contributor to research, essays and podcasts on the topic of public sector leadership, attracting and retaining the next generation of local government talent and strategies to build & balance the bench.

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The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

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