Horizontal communities, like the National Managers’ Community (NMC), are in the business of fostering innovation. Innovation is the perfect storm of a great idea, motivated individuals and a culture of higher performance coming together to produce a meaningful improvement on the status quo. None of these things are possible, however, without engagement.

Engagement is an important part of our public service culture. Managers know that an engaged workforce is essential to both maximizing organizational performance and fostering innovation. Managers are also aware that they represent a crucial leverage point for engagement in organizations. For over a decade, managers from across departments and agencies have been connecting, through the NMC, to learn about and practice engagement. Through workshops, informal dialogue sessions and a series of teleconference learning calls, the NMC’s Engagement Community of Practice has been a venue for managers to exchange best practices, share lessons learned and build an engagement toolkit.

The role of managers in fostering a culture of engagement, however, is frequently misunderstood. This is caused by a lack of precision in the language commonly used in conversations about engagement. Statements such as, “That was an engaging presentation,” and, “My manager engages me,” can be misleading because they place the responsibility for engagement beyond the individual.

In fact, engagement is not something that is done to you, but something you do. Engagement is an activity, a set of behaviours and a way of being. Each individual is independently responsible for whether they are engaged. The role of the manager, in fostering a culture of engagement, is not to engage individuals, but rather to enable engagement. Mastering this delicate art requires practice, patience and a commitment to organizational learning.

Managers can enable engagement and create the conditions for the perfect storm of innovation to emerge by:

Creating space for ideation: Creating space for ideation is simply a matter of eliciting dialogue. The easiest way to do this is to ask good, open-ended questions and encourage employees to ask and reflect on their own questions. Ideally, this is embedded in the day-to-day operations of the organization. The NMC’s publication, Tools for Leadership and Learning: Building A Learning Organization, offers a wide range of practical tools and processes that managers can use to generate dialogue and, in turn, great ideas. As well, managers can call upon members of the NMC’s Engagement Community of Practice to help design and implement engagement processes with their teams.

Supporting people to take action: Supporting employees to pilot and develop their ideas is crucial to engagement. In fact, one proven way to create disengagement in an organization is to ask people for their ideas and then fail to support them through to implementation. Great ideas do not become innovations until someone takes the initiative to refine them into replicable practices. This is an iterative process that demands patience and perseverance on the part of both the innovator and their manager. It is less glamorous than ideation, but this phase of the engagement process is where the real improvements are made.

Leading by example: It is easy to underestimate the considerable influence that a manager’s behaviour has on other employees. Managers set the tone in the workplace. They are the stewards of workplace culture. Great managers take this responsibility seriously and intentionally model engagement on a daily basis. They welcome dialogue, embrace new ways of working and continuously search for opportunities for both individual and team improvement. They celebrate achievements, but maintain a focus on identifying the next step toward higher-performance.

Our commitment to innovation, as a public service, is evidenced by the overwhelming response to the Blueprint 2020 Initiative launched in June 2013. Public servants across the country are rising to the perennial challenge of providing better service to Canadians. Innovations continue to emerge throughout the organization.

Recognizing the key role they have to play in this process, managers, through the National Managers’ Community, are focusing on enabling engagement into the future. In this way, fostering innovation is our business.