Congrats on your (team) engagement!
This blog considers team engagement, how leaders often stifle it without realising, and what simple steps we can take to improve it.
I have a couple of questions that I ask when I’m preparing to work with a team, or give a talk:
“What do you think would be a great outcome from this session?” and “What are the leadership or team related challenges that come up regularly for the people you work with?”
The answers shift around over time, but recently, there has been a strong pattern. I am hearing answers like:
“Improved team engagement”
“Getting the team more engaged and collaborative”
Maybe it’s a post-Covid hangover? Most businesses have gone through significant change in the last few years, often at quite a pace. In many cases personnel has changed, maybe as people re-evaluated their lives post-lockdown. Certainly many have been grappling with the virtual vs in person debate.
And the world around us is changing quickly too. If we don’t evolve, we will be left behind, and so change can sometimes seem relentless.
We can all feel a bit buffeted by this, and a drop in engagement and perhaps morale as a result isn’t a huge surprise.
What do Leaders mean by engagement?
When I dig a bit deeper, these are some of the answers that I hear:
I want the team to look interested and alert in meetings and contribute their ideas.
I want them to bring me solutions not just present me with problems.
I want everyone to be more pro-active.
I would love it if everyone cared as much about the business as I do.
What gets in the way ?
Let’s take one at a time. And consider how things might look right now from an employee's perspective.
I want the team to look interested and alert in meetings, and contribute their ideas
Imagine this scenario. Jane has attended a team meeting with a similar format every week for the last 3 years. It is dominated by a small number of voices (usually those in charge).
There’s not a lot of space for her or her colleagues to speak.
And when in the past, she has put ideas forward, her experience has not been great.
In fact, last time she made a suggestion, her boss interrupted her after 10 seconds to tell her why it wouldn’t work. That was 6 months ago, and not the first time it had happened. She’s not bothered since.
I want them to bring me solutions not just present me with problems
Another scenario: Lisa comes to her boss with an issue that she has found. She explains what it is, and immediately she is given a view on what the solution is. That’s what managers do - they fix stuff!
Lisa (and all of her colleagues) think that the boss has the answers, and that as the person in charge, they get the final say anyway. This has just re-confirmed that assumption.
I want everyone to be more pro-active
Martin loves problem solving, but is naturally quiet and a bit low on confidence. He thinks he has spotted something that the team could change that would make things much more efficient. But there is just no forum for him to put it forwards.
His boss is rushing around from meeting to meeting and never has space in their diary. When they do sit down for a rare conversation, it is rushed.
Team meetings are a free for all, with people talking over each other and interrupting. So Martin just doesn't say anything. And so no-one benefits from his brilliant idea.
I would love it if everyone cared as much about the business as I do.
Really? I think this is probably unrealistic. If you are the founder, or even part owner in your business, you have more invested, and more responsibility on your shoulders. You SHOULD care more than anyone.
I think what is really meant here, is that I wish people were really bought in to where we are heading.
Imagine the scenario...
Mick is the main Financial Planner and Business owner in XYZ Financial Planning. He has a team of 10 people, and feels the weight of that on his shoulders. He built the business from scratch, and now has the responsibility of all of those salaries on his mind, as well as retaining clients, and growing the business. It's a lot!
But he keeps most of that to himself. He certainly doesn’t share financial information with his team. Projections are largely in his head, and so targets are plucked from the same place, and no-one really understands the logic, or how they will be met.
Could this be you?
I’ve experienced all of these scenarios. Many of them personally. I've seen them play out in many of the businesses I've worked with. If you’ve recognised yourself, or your team, you are definitely not alone.
All are common, but all are all actively damaging the engagement that is so sought after.
I think feeling engaged at work boils down to one pretty simple thing:
Feeling like my voice is being heard, and that it matters.
So, how can we change our behaviour to make that the outcome? Here are my top tips:
Stop talking at them!
Give as much information as people need in order to get them thinking (usually not as much as we think) and then shut up and listen.
Seriously – cut your airtime down to about 10% and give others space.
Get everyone speaking, in turn, in every meeting, on every issue
I talk about thinking in rounds all the time! It is probably the simplest change that you can make to improve engagement.
It just means asking a question and then going round the table (physically or virtually) to hear what everyone has to say.
And make sure everyone really listens to everyone else. Which leads me on to the next point…
Completely. Make it a rule that no-one is allowed to interrupt anyone else. Ever. And if you’re the leader, you need to set the example which won't be easy.
Let people finish, let them pause, and see if they say anything else.
Wait until their eyes come back – if eyes are wandering, so are thoughts – and the end of the journey could be fascinating!
Be more transparent and vulnerable
We think as leaders that we have to be strong, have all the answers. We think we have to leave all of our fears and emotions at home.
Well that’s pretty outdated thinking, as Brene Brown explores in this now legendary TED talk.
Share more context with your team. Maybe then they will understand where you’re heading, and why.
Perhaps if they understand more, they will also care more.
Speak last, not first.
Often leaders speak first. When I introduce new teams to the Thinking Environment, and thinking in rounds, I notice that the boss often goes first.
When we speak first, we set the tone of a conversation. We give the context from which everyone else contributes.
So, when you want someone’s input, engagement and ideas, speak last, not first.
And when someone brings you a problem – a simple “I have some thoughts, but first, what do you think?” can work a treat.
What can you change today?
These changes might be simple, but they're not easy. So maybe try just one and see if anything changes.
Keep doing it for a couple of weeks, and then try adding one more.
I’d love to hear how you get on.