To Be a More Effective Leader, Know the Difference between Compliance and Engagement

Imagine that you’ve just taken a nasty tumble off your bike. You were wearing your helmet, which is good, but you instinctively tried to break your fall with your left arm. You think it might be broken. So your riding partner drives you to the emergency room and you experience one of the following…

Scenario one: You walk in the emergency entrance and it strikes you that the lobby looks a bit…well…dirty. You are immediately greeted by a friendly clerk who checks you in and soon you are called back to an exam room by a smiling and friendly nurse. As you walk through the exam area door you are greeted by chaos. What looks like old equipment seems randomly strewn about, cabinet doors stand open, you notice one nurse eating lunch at her desk, you hear a doctor exclaim, “hey, where is the good EKG unit?” The nurse smiles, a bit apologetically, leads you to an exam room and takes your vitals while she asks what happened. After a few minutes a doctor comes in smiling, introduces herself and asks you to explain your issue. As you explain she looks at your paperwork and starts to frown. “Excuse me,” she says, “they gave me the wrong paperwork, this is for someone else.” “Don’t worry about a thing, I’ll get this straightened out,” she says as she leaves the room. How are you feeling right now?

Scenario two: You walk into the emergency entrance an notice it’s clean and very well kept. You walk up to the clerk who is busy entering information into a computer. She glances at you but continues to type. You wait. After what seems like ten minutes, she finishes, swivels her chair toward you and says, “yes?” You explain your situation and she enters your detail into a computer, asking you several questions without so much as a glance to you. Then asks you to have a seat. You wait. You wait some more. After what seems like a half an hour a nurse calls you back to the examination area. The examination area is a model of cleanliness and efficiency. Everything is labeled and the equipment is stored neatly. You have little time to notice much else because the nurse who called you back is walking away. You assume she’s leading you to your exam room so you follow. She points to a room and says, “in here please.” She takes your vitals, barely speaking or making eye contact. She turns her back and fills out some paperwork then, with barely a glance says, “the doctor will be here in a minute,” and leaves. You wait. How are you feeling right now?

Keep those two scenarios in mind as we discuss compliance and engagement.

As a leader it is critical to understand the difference between compliance and engagement. The dictionary defines comply as “ to conform, submit, or adapt as required or requested,” whereas engage is, “ to offer (something) as backing to a cause or aim : to expose to risk for the attainment or support of some end.” To me, what jumps out from these definitions is that the source of compliance is external while the source of engagement is internal. I think this is an important distinction. While you can force or coerce someone to comply, you cannot force them to engage. With compliance you have their hands and feet, with engagement you have their hearts and minds!

Compliance is for processes, engagement is for people

To be truly successful you need both compliance and engagement, and it’s helpful if you appreciate the difference between the two. The way I like to think about it is that compliance is for processes (and things,) engagement is for people. Processes are managed, people are led. You must do the work to manage processes, while taking the time to lead your people. Too many managers/leaders favor one over the other. If not managed correctly, compliance can weaken engagement and likewise, if not led correctly, engagement can erode compliance.

Processes are managed, people are led

Compliant processes with disengaged people will lead to apathy, increased error and micro-management. You will have a downward pressure on compliance. To combat this, it is important to communicate the purpose, value and importance of compliance and the consequences of non-compliance to the organization, its customers and all employees or stakeholders. This does not mean implementing punishment for not compliance! — threat of punishment is just as likely to drive engagement down even lower! It means coaching your team members so they understand the risks and costs associated with circumventing the compliant process. It means helping them understand how working inside the compliant process makes their job easier in the long run. It means trusting them to do the right thing and work within the process and listening to them when they make credible suggestions for improving it. Keep in mind that compliant processes need not be rigid and inflexible. In fact, a good process will have built-in mechanisms for flexibility or process changes. It is critical, however, that flexibility be carefully governed and documented.

To be successful you need both compliance and engagement

Engaged people working with non-compliant processes results in frustration, increased rework and unacceptable variability. You will have a downward pressure on engagement. To remedy this, leverage engagement and empower team members to recommend and enact process improvements. Encourage your team to establish metrics that will help you identify and fix process shortcomings. Recognize and celebrate team contributions to process stabilization, and do it often. Be generous with information and encourage input from all levels of the organization — you never know where your next best idea will come from. Remember, to effectively establish and manage a compliant process, the reason for the compliance, and it’s impact on the purpose or goals of the organization, must be completely understood and supported by everyone responsible for maintaining it.

Now imagine a third scenario for your emergency room visit. You walk into an clean well-kept emergency lobby where you are immediately greeted by a caring and concerned staff member who takes your information and gets you checked in. After a brief wait you are called into the examination area by a smiling nurse. You step through the door into a clean and orderly space. The nurse asks you how your arm is feeling and whether or not your bike was damaged, she has clearly read your chart. She explains the process and what to expect during your visit as she leads you to the exam room. As she takes your vitals, she asks if you are comfortable and if there is anything you need. Before she is finished the doctor comes in and introduces herself. She asks about the details of your fall as she carefully examines your arm. She says, “We’re going to want some pictures so I’m ordering an x-ray,” and begins to explain the process to you. Now how are you feeling?

Better, I hope.

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