A question of "us" and "them"...
One of the things I always recommend for leaders in a new role, is to work their way around the business, meeting people, listening and asking questions.
Another thing I suggest is, as they go round, they mentally keep score of the “they index”.
It’s the simplest diagnostic there is for getting the lie of the cultural land; for understanding how engaged people feel with the organisation, and particularly with the leadership and direction of the business. The number of times you hear “they” rather than “us” paints a very powerful picture. Try it next time you’re out and about. The higher your “they index”, the more concerned you should be.
Using words like “us” and “we” to describe the business, its past and future, successes and failures, means your people feel part of the decisions that are taken; a shared ownership; collective responsibility. It signifies that your people are personally invested in making things work. “They” signifies the opposite. It didn’t work, and it’s “their” fault. It probably won’t work, but it’s “their” decision.
It’s also impersonal – it’s qualitatively different from saying “Jeff”, “the COO”, or “the Exec”, which allows people to ascribe blame and opinion without having to be specific; a way to criticise a decision without having to relate to the individual who made it. And at the worst extreme, it’s a way for disaffected managers to create a loyal, local clique: stick with me because you can’t trust them.
The absence of those two factors: personal investment and interpersonal relationship, drives the “they index”. And it’s the same two factors you need to cultivate in order to turn the dial on engagement, and flip the index into reverse.
The way to do that is to get your people to a place where they feel part of the decisions that affect them, where they understand the reasons they were made, even if they don’t fully agree with them. They need to know the decision-maker has considered their needs and concerns, and made the best decision they could in the circumstances.
That means you, as the decision-maker, need to be visible, take ownership, and most importantly, explain things with a narrative that starts with them – with what they told you, with what you saw when you were with them, with what you know they have to deal with.
After all, if you can’t relate your strategy to their issues, don’t be surprised if they aren't especially engaged with you.