The Engagement Is Off!!

The curtains are closed, the black armbands are on and the funeral dirges are playing. It’s a time of great mourning in the Olson empire. Our grandson’s engagement is off….

No, no, he wasn’t planning on getting married—he’s only twelve and, even though his voice has changed, he’s still pre-pubescent for heaven’s sake. And there are no marriageable twelve year old girls available anyway—at least not in our neighbourhood.

It’s not a romantic interest that has gone awry. Much to the chagrin and dismay of his grandfather, it’s with hockey that the engagement has been broken. You see, after a stellar seven year career from tyke to pee wee, the boy has made a decision to hang up his skates. The decision wasn’t easy to make but, after careful thought and consideration, he concluded that hockey was not fun anymore and it was time to move on to other things. In so many words, he said he no longer felt connected with the game, the hockey association or the team to which he was assigned and, in the end, he didn’t want to commit time and energy to something that he no longer enjoyed.

So how does it come to this? What is it that makes work or play less fun; that causes people, regardless of age, to turn their backs on something that they’ve invested in for years and decide that they are no longer willing to commit their emotional, cognitive and physical energy to something? Minor hockey, I think, provides an organizational microcosm within which we can look for answers to these questions.

The process of losing interest and commitment is erosive. The decision to quit something is rarely made in haste. Generally speaking people soldier on, hoping that conditions will change for the better, until they are simply exhausted and feel that the only way they can regain their verve or mojo is to leave and go elsewhere—elsewhere being where conditions enhance rather than deplete their feelings of engagement.

What is engagement? Well, it is often described as the degree to which a person feels an intense personal connection with a team, organization or cause;  one characterized by a display of emotional, cognitive and physical behaviours that create personal and organizational success. The notion has considerable currency for organizational behaviour types like me and has been articulated most famously by the Gallup organization through the development of their twelve factor model. Lack of space precludes a discussion of all twelve factors but, suffice to say, that according to Gallup, each needs to be present in considerable measure if people are going to be highly engaged.

While not all of the Gallup factors are directly applicable to minor hockey and the slow erosion of my grandson’s interest in it, there are some that do make sense when put into a  context. In this missive I’ll deal with learning, growth and, to a lesser extent, the need to be regarded as a person. The next blog entry will continue the hockey theme and elaborate on how friends, relationships and leaders contribute to engagement. Hopefully the portability of the concepts and their applicability to your organization will be apparent.

Learning and growth are values fundamental to most, if not all, minor hockey programs.  They are also included in Gallup’s engagement factors. Essentially, the more opportunity one has to learn and grow the greater the sense of engagement. In minor hockey, great attention is given to these values during the “tim-bit” years. However, the focus on learning and development for all the kids involved begins to wane as the players get older, differences in skill become more apparent and political considerations begin to kick in. While the quality of coaching remains consistent for the elite kids, it is often less so for those who play at lower levels. The ultimate manifestation of this is the recruitment of coaches from outside the association to handle the elite bantam and pee wee teams while the development of the less skilled kids is left to parent volunteers who, while highly committed, often lack the ability, knowledge and resources needed to assess individual developmental needs, do gap analyses and prepare and execute individual developmental plans. Even if they did have the resources to do all of this, as with supervisors and managers in some organizations I’ve worked with, few have the inclination or ability to provide regular, timely and specific feedback to the players as their plans are operationalized. Are there organizational parallels here? I think so.

Player assessment, perhaps unwittingly, also may limit learning and growth. Approaches to player assessment in minor hockey are not dissimilar to those used for performance reviews in many organizations. In both cases they are usually designed to produce a number that satisfies a specific need (compensation in organizations, player rankings in minor hockey), rely on a single rather than multiple measures, have little or questionable construct validity, lack statistical integrity and robustness, fail to take rater bias into account, and provide little, if any, information to managers, supervisors and coaches relative to how individual performance might be enhanced or improved. Through their penchant for reducing everything to a number, those who design and execute these processes demonstrate, amongst other things, a limited understanding of the human need for individuals to be treated and cared for as people—another of the Gallup engagement factors.

How much learning and development actually occurs in minor hockey? One measure is the level to level player movement from year to year. In my grandson’s association approximately 10% of players actually experience real movement from level to level—questionable results to be sure. Perhaps the most serious indictment of learning and development efforts though, at least where my grandson played, is that the roster of this year’s elite pee wee team is exactly the same as that of the elite atom team two years ago. Organizations I’ve studied show similar patterns and these data, I would suggest, are not indicative of a strong, true commitment to learning and development

Challenge and the opportunity to learn, grow and achieve are essential to human motivation and behavioural consequences are inextricably linked to performance. When people, whether adults or kids, perceive that positive consequences for hard work are missing or available to only a few, their performance deteriorates, motivation wanes and engagement diminishes. Ignore this at your peril. Organizational leaders and minor hockey officials alike need to determine the extent to which their approaches to learning and development maximize individual and collective engagement. Managers and supervisors who ignore the importance of this will likely end up with employees who opt for “on the job retirement,” and simply play out the string,  counting the days until they can really retire.

In minor hockey the kids just might quit.

Over the years I’ve conducted scores of employee engagement/satisfaction studies and thousands of individual assessments. If you’d like to have a talk give me a call or drop me a note.

Dr. Tom

PS: For those of you who might attribute the foregoing as simply the maniacal ravings of a cranky old man unhappy about where his grandson was placed, you’re half right. I am a cranky old man—but in the process of becoming one I learned that things in my life that once seemed so critical and took up an inordinate amount of time and energy were actually much less important than they seemed at the time. For all of the attention focused on hockey, very few kids go on to really bigger and better things and parents, once they have some distance from the game and everything associated with it, wonder what they got so excited about. The true measure of a successful hockey program is not that a handful of kids went on to play at a high level but how many young men and women continue to play into their thirties, forties, fifties and even older. If a kid leaves the game but the game doesn’t leave the kid, then it can truly be said that the minor hockey program was a good one.

Finally check out this article about fun (or lack of same) at work!

http://www.economist.com/node/17035923

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