How can you improve engagement?

Written by
James Martin

12 Jan 2017

12 Jan 2017 • by James Martin

By this we mean the trait of using a combination of emotions and logic to communicate a persuasive vision and build connections.

Whilst there are some natural role models, there aren’t many Nelson Mandelas or Mahatma Gandhis in the world. Some tend to build relationships over a period of time; other thoughtful types like to think very carefully before expressing an opinion. Some equate leadership with transmitting their views with clarity at full volume. So is there any hope for those of us if we want to improve in this area?

Luckily, it seems that you do not need to have the eloquence and charisma of a Martin Luther King to create deep engagement. Study in the fields of psychology and neuroscience as well as my own experience working on development with senior executives lead me to believe that there are a number of steps we can all take to become more effective in this sphere.

1. Broaden your understanding of human personality and response

I have discovered over the years that even highly intelligent sophisticated leaders can be surprisingly blind to the range of human personalities around them and how they might react to events. When subordinates do not respond as expected, some leaders might feel surprise, irritation and even anger. It seems to me that the root cause is a lack of curiosity about personality and its astonishing complexity. It’s a bit like looking at a large stained glass window from a distance. Some might just see the big picture, not the thousands of tiny panes of glass that refract light in different ways.

Becoming more sophisticated in this area could involve study or even just reading more novels. As Stephen Pinker pointed out in his excellent book “The Better Angels of our Nature”, the rise of novels in the last couple of centuries may be one factor that has had a significant positive impact on all of our ability to empathise with others.

2.Understanding yourself

All of us operate with significant distortions in how we see, hear, experience and respond to events. Just as everyone else is complicated so are we. When I coach others or provide feedback on a psychometric questionnaire, I am often struck by the way the most spiky aspects of individuals’ personalities are the elements they cherish most. Its what makes them distinctive. This is even the case when it is also a part of their personality that antagonizes others or gets them into trouble. 

3. Learn more about the brain

For those who like to go a bit deeper, the world of neuroscience and psychology combined is shedding even more light on how we all deal with the sophistication of our brains by leaping to conclusions, interpolating from limited data or simply misjudging. For example, depending on the wiring of our own minds, many of us may interpret a frown from a boss as they pass us in the corridor as being an explicit negative judgment on us as individuals. For a great read on the topic, I would recommend Neuroscience for Leadership by Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm and Paul Brown.

4. Focus on building trust and warmth

“Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.”* Although there are plenty of successful leaders who manage through fear, in a free society where talent is scarce, its likely to be more appealing to a wider variety of personalities to be led by someone who wins over their hearts as well as their minds. Achieving this implies a personal brand of consistency, fairness and generosity of spirit.

That’s not easy. As with any significant politician, the tragedy for any leader is that they are soon turned into a caricature of themselves, with any flaw or trait exaggerated to comic proportions. That’s why the small stuff matters. The smile, the warmth, paying attention to those talking.

The really good news is that no one has to be perfect. Authenticity is more likely to elicit trust than perfection, which is both intimidating and off-putting.

* “Connect, then lead”, Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger, Harvard Business Review, 2013.