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Chapter 3: The Roots of Engagement

I’ve told this story dozens of times to groups of leaders and managers, and then asked how many have experienced this kind of phenomenon. Every time, fully three-fourths of the audience say that they—or someone related to them—have gone through a situation where, slowly but surely, a well-intentioned parent and child have become disillusioned, then disengaged, and ultimately destructive to the team. Of course, this could happen with a theater group, a jazz ensemble, or a dance team—but the result is the same.

In an instant, the people in these audiences recalled how it felt to be disengaged or not belong. It’s important to remember what it’s like to start off being excited about a new job and a new role and, over time, become disillusioned because you don’t feel that you can fully play.

In many companies, managers and frontline associates don’t see where they belong in executing the strategy of the business. They may initially (and energetically) offer opinions and ideas; then, when their thoughts are ignored or disregarded, they slip into indifference. As in our soccer story, they start to distrust their leaders and become more aligned with those wearing the uniform of cynicism and apathy—the disengaged—than those who are actively working for the organization to win. The people at Beaumont Hospitals in Michigan know the importance of feeling as if you belong. Not long ago, more than 13,000 employees met to share the organization’s new vision. Ken Matzick, Beaumont’s CEO, noticed that what happened that day went beyond communication of a unified message. The experience gave people a sense of belonging simply because they were asked to express their own ideas. “When leaders show respect by asking employees for their opinions,” Matzick said, “people feel valued and connected, and see themselves belonging to the process of driving change.”

3. People want to go on a meaningful journey.

We all want to be on some kind of purposeful adventure that matters. As part of moving forward, there’s a feeling of excitement, pioneering, discovery—and a sense of accomplishment that comes from achieving something that matters. It’s more than attractive; it’s downright heady. It’s the part of the human spirit that suggests we can be more, that we are more. Robert Redford was once asked why he continued to support the Sundance Institute for fledgling filmmakers. He said, “I’ve always operated from a belief that if we could do more, we should.” We all want to create something that doesn’t exist right now. Nobody wants to sum up a lifetime by saying, “I did one hell of a job maintaining what was already there.” What’s important is, “Here’s what it was like when I arrived, and here’s how I made it better!” Our journey is both a challenge and an opportunity that compels us to take risks and makes overcoming the barriers worth the effort.

Some journeys are more public than others. In the mid-1980s, Chrysler, a longtime mainstay of the American auto market, was flirting with insolvency. After a long struggle, the U.S. government stepped in to provide financial backing. Chrysler was given a federal guaranteed loan that the company was to pay back when the storm was over. I spent a day with a senior engineer at Chrysler a few years later, and he gave me the inside story. Here’s what he told me:

“When Chrysler got those loan guarantees, this was an amazing place to work. Everybody on the outside thought we were on life support, but nothing could have been further from the truth! All of us who worked here shared a spirit of commitment— there was no way we’d let down our country or our company. We were absolutely certain about this. It was like an adventure, like a pledge we were going to fulfill. You could come in here at any time of the day or night and find lights on in the offices. If anyone asked for help, anywhere, they got it

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