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The Tao of Engagement

Posted by Sam Dawson

Sam Dawson

Picture yourself in ancient China, perched on the edge of a far flung range of misty mountains. It’s 5am and in the early morning chill, as the mist begins to rise, you move in harmony with a hundred other highly trained warrior monks. You are silently and swiftly practicing your Kung Fu ‘patterns’. Those slow yet deadly movements that when performed at speed, make you a master of effective combat. You and your fellow warriors have made a lifetime commitment to your temple and the dojo. Every day you wake early and are fully engaged in your life’s purpose from the moment you open your eyes. You have had extensive training, are clear about the future direction of your warrior temple and have the right tools (well, swords) to do the job. You are truly effective.

That may all sound a bit Kung Fu Panda but think about how it felt for you this morning as you opened your eyes to get ready for a day at work. If you’re lucky you’ll be one of the 50% or so of people who feel engaged and enabled in their jobs. It’s just as likely that you and your workforce find themselves with a very different early morning mindset. You may be one of the many of the global workforce we know are frustrated, who are engaged but not supported to be successful in your job. Perhaps worse you may even feel ineffective, neither engaged nor enabled to be successful. You may even be looking for another job.

The ancient Chinese had an answer as to how to live and work effectively. Woven into their belief systems was the concept of Tao. Now, the Tao in itself is not meant to be described, although there are some very large and complex books about the subject (I know I’ve tried to read them). Suffice it to say it’s often described as a path or a way which is embodied in all existence. Oh go on then, it’s a bit like ‘the force’ in Star Wars.

The Tao is supported by a text called the Tao-Te-Ching, of exact unknown origins but widely attributed to Lao Tze, a 4th century Chinese philosopher. I think there are lessons for current day workplaces to be learned from looking at this ancient text.  Perhaps the best example is when it looks at the paradoxes of leadership and enabling people to be effective. It says:

“The best leaders value their words and lead them sparingly.

When they have accomplished their task

The people say “Amazing!

We did it all by ourselves”

Four thousand years of human development separate this quote from today’s fast paced and technologically oriented workspaces. However, the quote still holds relevance for today. In fact there is a strikingly similar quote attributed to Steve Jobs of Apple fame, just a few years ago. He said at that point:

“The people who are doing the work are the moving force…my job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organisation and keep it at bay”

Whether you’re the very late Lao Tze or the recently late Steve Jobs, the key to driving a successful workforce appears to be the enablement of your people. You can’t make a person artificially become ‘engaged’ if they are not. You can help them succeed by setting them up the optimal way to succeed. Engagement will follow.

So, learning from the general concept of the Tao and my approaching 20 years of helping organisations engage their workforces, these are my 3 top tips for letting the Tao flow in your organisation.

  1. Go with the flow. Well, not quite, but the most successful organisations use existing momentum within their business as a framework from which to hang employee engagement initiatives. There are many organisations who run engagement surveys and are looking to break the ‘you said, we did’ cycle. Remember a survey in itself is not going to drive engagement or business performance.
  2. Sow the seeds of engagement. We know from many of the high performing companies we partner with that the key to their engagement success is the ability to embed the concept of engagement at local levels. These organisations use an engagement model that resonates with employees on the ground, and a commitment to enabling them to be successful is often the key.
  3. Enable your workforce.  Ensure employees are set up for success. The best organisations ensure that their people have the right resources and their jobs are structured for optimal impact. This helps them stay ahead of the curve, increase performance and retain talent.

With regard to talent, ancient legend has it that Lao-Tze, saddened by the evil of humanity, set off into the desert on a water buffalo, leaving civilisation behind him for good. Before your workforce do the same it could well be time to let the Tao of Engagement flow through your company. Or find a water buffalo seller fast.



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