The distinction between compliance and engagement

What kind of leadership do you bring to your teams? Does your leadership create compliance or engagement in your organization?

Steffan Surdek
September 29, 2016

The last few years I worked with a lot of teams as an agile coach in many different companies. I have come to notice there is a cycle teams seem to go through to become more cohesive. I also noticed that organizational culture sometimes makes it more difficult for team members to engage in the team building process but up until earlier this year, I was not able to put the right words on what I was seeing.

In some organizations where there is more of a command and control culture and where directivity seems to be the dominant leadership style, I believe one of the key things to understand is the distinction between compliance and engagement.

What is compliance?

To get some inspiration, I decided to look up the definition of the word compliance from the Merriam-Webster dictionary and use their simple definition of the word as a starting point:

“The act or process of doing what you have been asked or ordered to do: the act or process of complying.”

The definition is pretty straightforward and twisting it around a bit can also illustrate two different shades of compliance in the workplace:

  • Compliance to meet a job description: For example, your manager asks you do produce a report and you do it because producing that report is actually part of your job. This is the most basic type of compliance and it meets the definition above but that is not the type I want to talk about.
  • Compliance by fear of consequences: This type happens when people do exactly what is asked of them because they feel they have no other choice but to do it or there will be consequences. People living this type of compliance typically like direct instructions on what to do because it allows them to avoid blame and avoid taking ownership of their work.

The interesting point about the second type is getting an understanding of what is driving the people to comply in the situation because more often than not, they have a lot more choices available to them than they actually believe they do.

What does compliance look like?

Take a moment and think of the various teams that are working around you in your workplace. Think of management teams as well as teams on the ground. Can you identify the ones that are presently operating mainly in compliance mode? What are some of their key behaviors leading you to believe this?

When this distinction first became obvious to me, I was in a meeting with a team and team members were taking no ownership of the meeting and what was happening in it. They were upset and waiting for others to come up with solutions for them and tell them what to do and they seemed completely lost when that was not happening.

It became apparent to me the team would do whatever they were told and would simply follow marching orders. They would not be happy about it, they would probably complain about it but they would do it so they would not have to suffer any consequences.

That is one simple example but I could come up with others. The common thread between most of the situations I can think up relates to how their leaders conditioned these teams in the past by being directive and not receptive to their ideas.

What is engagement?

From a business perspective, when we talk about employee engagement, we are often talking about employees that have an emotional involvement or commitment to the organization. This emotional attachment encourages them to bring their best game pretty much every day and to be a difference maker in the organization.

The challenge is that engagement can be a fickle thing at times as well because leaders need to fuel these people by giving them the right challenges and the right opportunities to grow and remain motivated. When leaders do not pay attention to this, the engagement may begin to wane until it finally disappears and morphs into compliance.

How can you create and foster engagement?

Creating engagement begins with a common goal or purpose. As a leader, what are you trying to bring to life in the organization? What is the vision? Is it compelling and inspiring to you as well as other people in the organization? How are you communicating this vision?

How are you engaging people in your organization in helping you bring this vision to life? Are you creating space in your language and your actions for others to join in and contribute to the best of their abilities or are you shutting people out when their opinions do not match yours?

How are you working towards the vision for others to see? Are your actions and behaviors consistent with the vision you are communicating? What new behaviors are you rewarding and promoting inside your organization?

When it comes to teams, how are you helping them identify their emergent purpose that is also aligned with the overall vision you want to put into place?


The challenge with the distinction between compliance and engagement is that leaders do not seem to be able to recognize this in situations where compliance by fear of consequences is happening, either within their own management teams or with their teams on the ground. Because they are not recognizing this, they cannot address it effectively with their teams as it is happening.

The second challenge is that leaders also do not always take responsibility for their own personal actions that generate compliance from their teams. Sometimes this comes from a lack of awareness of their impact, other times it comes from a lack of desire to take responsibility for their own actions.

What kind of leadership do you bring to your teams? Does your leadership create compliance or engagement in your organization?