Richard H. Axelrod: Terms of Engagement - Author interview

Leading authority on change management, and founder and principal of the Axelrod Group, Inc., Richard H. Axelrod, was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about the second edition of his seminal classic book Terms of Engagement, Second Edition: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations.

Richard H. Axelrod describes the problems associated with traditional change management techniques, and offers a fresh alternative approach that is inclusive, engaging, and effective.

Thanks to Richard H. Axelrod for his time, and for his thoughtful and informative responses to the questions. They are greatly appreciated.

What was the background to writing this book Terms of Engagement?

Richard H. Axelrod: I interviewed dozens of leaders, OD and HR Professionals, in for profit and not for profit organizations along with experts in the field of organizational change. I combined that information with more than 30 years of teaching and consulting experience.

What do you mean by employee engagement within companies?

Richard H. Axelrod: Engaged people put their wholehearted self behind the task at hand. Engaged organizations are those where the majority of people put their energy and commitment into the work.

Why is it so critical today for companies to engage their employees?

Richard H. Axelrod: Engaged employees are more productive, provide better customer service, develop customer loyalty, have fewer accidents, the list goes on and on. In today’s world your employees are the key differentiator between you and your competition.

How does engagement differ from other concepts of change management?

Richard H. Axelrod: You can have change management that ignores engagement. This is what I call the Old Change Management. You can have change management where engagement is the cornerstone. I call this the New Change Management. The New Change Management involves significant numbers of people in the change process early and often. In these processes people know their voice counts, they are connected to the purpose, and they work together to get things done.

Dick Axelrod (photo left)

You describe in the book how breakthrough research into neuroscience supports the concept of engagement?

Richard H. Axelrod: Author David Rock, Your Brain at Work, identifies two basic human responses, we move away from threats and toward rewards. When threatened the collaborative, innovative part of the brain shuts down, when we are in the reward state the collaborative innovative part of the brain lights up. Rock considers engagement as a reward state. This reward state occurs as you are included in the decision making process, when have a sense of where things are headed, where you have the autonomy to make decisions, where you are connected to others, and when you perceive what is happening as fair. Interestingly these are all factors in a high engagement change process.

If the research and business evidence demonstrates the productive and quality aspects of engagement, why are some companies so reluctant to embrace engagement?

Richard H. Axelrod: There are many myths that surround engagement. Some are; it takes too long, only the experts have the knowledge to create solutions, leaders will lose control, productivity will go down instead of up, and self-interest will take over. These are myths and are not true, but the extent to which leaders believes these myths they are reluctant to embrace engagement. For others it’s just a value system. They do not believe that engagement works, is helpful, or the way they want to lead, despite the evidence. .

How can organizational leaders begin the transformation of the company to one based on engagement?

Richard H. Axelrod: There are lots of places to start. You can start with what we call every day engagement conversations and find out what is important to people in your organization and then help to make that happen. You can focus on your meetings and stop having dull, boring, time wasting meetings and begin to have meetings that are so engaging that no one looks at their Blackberry. You can find an important business issue that if people were engaged in its success would make a difference. You can design jobs based on autonomy, feedback and challenge. Any one of these strategies will work; you have to figure out which one makes sense for your company.

You describe four key activities for managers to consider with engagement. What are those four key elements and why are they so important?

Richard H. Axelrod: There are four principles to consider when it comes to engagement. Widen the Circle of Involvement, Connect People to Each Other, Create Communities for Action, and Promote Fairness. These principles are important because they create a way of working that builds a foundation for engagement. When you Widen the Circle, you not only get support you get better solutions as diverse opinions are added to the conversation. When you connect people to each other you build relationships in the organization that help the work go smoothly. When people connect to each other and to the task at hand, they put energy behind what needs to be done. When you build Communities For Action, you have a group of people who have the will to make something happen, and promoting fairness provides a sense of safety and wellbeing.

What happens should engagement fail and what could cause engagement initiatives to derail?

Richard H. Axelrod: When engagement fails you create a lot of organizational damage. People’s hopes are dashed and cynicism prevails. Engagement fails, when leadership administers engagement surveys and fails to involve employees in addressing the issues identified in the survey, It fails when company statements talk about the importance of people, and you are devalued on a daily basis.

How can an organization be designed from day one to include engagement as a core value?

Richard H. Axelrod: You can begin by designing work with engagement in mind, creating jobs that have meaning, autonomy, feedback, and challenge built it. You can create a compelling purpose for your organization, one that everyone wants to support. Companies that have a purpose of giving back to the communities in which they work, or doing good in the world, will do better than companies whose purpose is just to produce product. You can make sure that people have a voice in issues that impact them. You can choose leaders who are honest, who believe in transparency, and who are willing to trust their employees.

What is the first step a leader should take in a company toward engagement throughout the organization?

Richard H. Axelrod: There are several places you can start. It is important to find out what works for you and your organization. The first thing to remember is the engagement is a choice. You choose to engage with others and they choose to engage with you. Engagement is not a plug and play activity. You can start by eliminating time wasting, energy draining meetings and begin to think of meetings of engagement opportunities. When you have an important change initiative, involve people early and often, and make sure their voice counts. You can conduct dialogues to find out what people care about in your organization and why. Then, put those goals on a par with your regular business goals. You can talk about what is important to you and why you are willing to put your own time and energy behind what needs to be done.

What is next for Dick Axelrod?

Richard H. Axelrod: I feel another book coming on.


My book review of Terms of Engagement, Second Edition: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations by Richard H. Axelrod.

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