Engaged Organizations
The Language of Engagement by Rachel Happe, updated

The Language of Engagement

The Language of Engagement is a communication style that invites response, collaboration, and different perspectives. It is common in education, non-profits, and therapy but used much less frequently in work and business environments. In fact, many best practices in corporate communications, leadership development, and business schools discourage it in favor of declarative language that makes dialog feel challenging or even confrontational.

In most business communications, the emphasis is on being declarative and crafting a well-thought-out and complete thought. Whether that is an email, a presentation, or a press release, we try not to leave things unsaid or vague. But the enemy of engagement is perfection. The more complete your thought, the less other opinions and input are needed. 

Best practices in business communication create significant barriers to collaboration; many don’t even see the issues.

The Language of Business Denies Humanity

Over the course of my career, I have often heard all the “right” words from leaders, whether about innovation, collaboration, engagement, or employee engagement. However, I rarely saw the investments required to realize those goals, including infrastructure that makes engaging behaviors easy and rewarding. I am not alone; this language has resulted in intense cynicism among employees and the general public because it is rightly seen as doublespeak – intending to get credit for something by exerting pressure on others without the investment to ensure its success.

An email from Gallup recently highlighted a finding of their  2023 State of the Global Workforce report: 24% of employees strongly agree that their organizations care about their overall well-being. I agree that the absence of care is an issue for employees—it might be the fundamental issue driving engagement and satisfaction. However, it is not about “communicating” care. It’s about actually caring. The solution Gallup identifies is to create self-help resources that support well-being, which is also not the same as feeling care.

The Language of Engagement is Personal

Executives addressing HR issues always want to find solutions that “scale,” but people don’t operate like machinery. People are dynamic and constantly changing; what we need in one moment differs from what we need in the next. Providing a static solution to a dynamic problem provides no solution at all. Relationships and trust are critical because they create the context for understanding and responding to language and meaning. It’s why getting Happy Birthday notifications on LinkedIn rings hollow; it’s technical anthropomorphism, and it removes most of the meaning. Technologists often get this wrong, which is why AI is a poor replacement for authentic dialog.
If I wanted to demonstrate care in the workplace, it would look something like this, with appropriate follow-up:

  • “I noticed you came in a bit late and seem stressed, what can I take off your plate today?”
  • “What are a few things energizing you right now?”
  • “It feels to me like there is friction between you and other team members, can I help brainstorm ways to address it?”
  • “I heard about the creative way you solved [X] issue. I was impressed with how you did [y]. Would you be comfortable sharing your approach with the team next week?”

Implicit in the language of engagement are the following behaviors:

  • Noticing
  • Validating
  • Supporting
  • Assuming Commitment
  • Seeking Understanding
  • Supporting
  • Promoting
  • Inviting
  • Empowering
Digital Workplace Communities Empower Employees Engaged Organizations Research Data

Too often, in work environments, we ignore, tell, judge, mandate, demand, assume a lack of commitment, leave others to struggle, solve problems for others instead of with them, and compete. If those behaviors are combined with a power imbalance, they discourage and intimidate people and decrease engagement. This is one reason why communities of peers with fewer power imbalances are so powerful and effective at empowering and engaging employees.

The challenge for those in positions of authority is that noticing others requires time. Validating, giving people flexibility, and inviting others takes time and space to accommodate it. Those things don’t happen in a business environment where there are no line items in budgets for patience, reflection, open-ended discussion, or care. Most managers have no discretionary budget for unknown needs or opportunities. The lack of caring is not the failure of individuals but a systemic failure to acknowledge that working with people requires time in schedules and budgets to adapt to the dynamic needs of the situation. That lack of time is also directly connected to the inability of many organizations to understand and calculate the financial value of relationships and trust.

If it were up to me, all teams would have an ice cream budget.

Language Can Thwart the Best Collaborative Strategy

One of the reasons I started Engaged Organizations is that, after a decade of research to identify the strategic, operational, and tactical markers of successful community and engagement strategies, I wanted to understand, identify, and work to address the daily barriers that hamper the success of enterprise community, collaboration, and engagement initiatives.

I found across clients that communicating like humans is challenging within organizations. It is not because people don’t know how to do it; they communicate that way in their personal lives.

It is challenging because of the dynamics of organizational systems, which include:

  • Those in positions of power model a declarative style, which I think of as the language of business.
  • Productivity and action are prioritized over understanding and meaning.
  • The primary approach to measuring progress is by transaction and deliverable volume.
  • The primary approach to professional development and reviews is punitive.
  • Employees are anxious because they implicitly understand that they can be fired at any time.
  • There is an assumption that value is in what we can produce rather than how we energize trust.

No one told the clients with whom I worked that they must communicate in a certain way, they were simply absorbing the norms of the environment and understandably anxious about getting negative reactions, especially when communicating with large groups and communities. Together, these factors thwarted engagement.
I often find in my client work – typically addressing strategy, planning, training, and design – that I end up diving deeply into communications and editing. Collaborative strategies’ last mile can accelerate or stymie an otherwise compelling strategy. It’s been a great lesson for me, even knowing how powerful the way we communicate is.

Recommendations for Making Language More Engaging

Here are my recommendations for communicating in a way that improves engagement:

  • Determine length, format, and language use by context: the audience, relationship, need, channel
  • Give people agency over their own response; offer information, perspective, and choice in follow-up. Even if you are the boss.
  • Check your use of absolutes – always, never, no, yes – very few things in the world are that clear.
  • When expressing an opinion, consider phrases like ‘In my experience,’ ‘I have found,’ ‘I think,’ and ‘From my perspective’; they invite others to have an alternate perspective and to share it.
  • Consider using ‘and’ as well as ‘consider’ instead of ‘but’ and ‘should’. ‘But’ implicitly judges something as incomplete or misdirected. ‘Should’ is a dynamic of control vs. engagement.
  • Reflect on using ‘you’ and ‘we’—they can subtly indicate control. These are particularly problematic because using ‘we’ is often encouraged. When someone says, ‘We will do x,’ it feels like a directive, not an invitation.
  • Be curious, even if you think someone’s question has been answered. There is often more to the story, and digging further often leads to a better understanding and, sometimes, a different answer.
  • Only ask questions if you are genuinely curious; people can tell if you are not and it lands poorly.
  • Consider using emoticons and emotive punctuation in writing—not excessively, but it can help others understand your emotional tenor.
  • Assess digital body language to better understand online exchanges—cadence, length, who can see it, punctuation, and more.
  • Practice pausing before instinctively validating or spreading a good or bad rumor until it can be confirmed. This is how misinformation happens.
  • When something triggers an immediate, intense reaction, use caution and consider whether responding to it adds to the conversation or makes it more difficult.
  • TL;DR is a considerable risk; people are overwhelmed. Quantity ≠ quality.
  • Graphics and formatting make content easier to absorb. We all thank you.
  • Inviting or prompting subject lines increases engagement rates.

This list is not comprehensive, but in veering toward TL;DR territory, it is enough to help you think about how you communicate when you want to engage others.

Are there things you would add to this list? Things you avoid?
Please share!

I was prompted to update this post based on a discussion started on LinkedIn by Isabel De Clercq, a Belgian expert in the digital workplace.



The original edition of this post from ~2015 is on The Community Roundtable blog

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