The Irony of True Engagement: Stretching Hurts!

Different employees want different developmental opportunities. Some prefer the stability of a long-term dedicated role; others want to be stretched to grow and learn something new. Some may see new opportunities as the organization just continuing to raise the stakes; others may seek that challenge.

For high-performing employees who want to be stretched, the most important engagement tip, and difficult reality, is that you have to let go, even when it means pain will follow.

People learn when they must do something new, which is scary, hard and painful. Looking back, many leaders say they learned the most from their failures… Here’s the reality that underlies that:  learning was only possible because another leader allowed them to fail.  Let that sink in! To allow people to learn, engage and grow, you have to let them fail.

At times, this means not being a “helicopter boss”—flying in to save the day when your employee starts to struggle.  It means establishing a clear desired outcome or goal, without defining the “how,” and then holding the person accountable for getting there.  It means giving the employee the chance to capture a new project or client—and continuing to stand by them if it fails, with the opportunity to process lessons learned and providing steady support.

Scary stuff!  True engagement is being in it for the long game—testing people’s limits, strategically building in checkpoints and risk mitigation steps, and letting go to see what happens.  It does NOT mean sending the person into the breach with no support or guidance—it means being available for consultation and providing coaching. But it also means letting the other person drive, and taking the risk that they will find an even better route than you might have.

One emerging leader we once worked with said simply, “hold me accountable, and I will be engaged.” This means giving high performers the opportunity to contribute to the organization in a meaningful way that adds value. When this accountability and results-orientation lies at the center of employee engagement, the resulting activities can directly support and achieve the organization’s mission.