Solving The Real Engagement Problem

To make the greatest progress with your team, you might need to think small.

When teams solve their own problems, rather than managers solving them on their behalf, the result is a more educated and productive team. Even more important, however, is the feeling employees get from emotionally and physically engaging in removing barriers that impede their own excellence.

Throughout my travels as a consultant, I’ve benefitted from listening to numerous CEOs complain to me about just how hard it is to engage with employees. The same CEOs, however, often do crazy things to try to make employees feel engaged.

One CEO I know constantly sent out emails to all employees, telling them how much they mattered. But at the same time as he was writing those notes, he was also shipping those same employees’ jobs to China. Slogans throughout his building, that were intended to convince employees “how much stakeholders cared” and “valued employees,” instead, did the opposite. Many employees told me they went home each night feeling and believing as if their ideas for improvement didn’t matter.

And they were right.

When I stepped in to challenge the executive about the inconsistency in his behavior, he roared with discontent. Telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about, and how their organization had won the “Best Place to Work” award in their local business journal for three consecutive years. But the CEO neglected to mention the many emails that were sent to employees prior to the selection process, demanding employees vote for his organization as the best place to work in that county.

What can an executive do then to try to truly engage with their employees?

Think small not big. More specifically, focus on improvements to operations that would most immediately benefit you and your team.

There’s an emotional and psychological reason for bringing about small changes rather than big ones: For most of us, our brains aren’t hard-wired to bring about large changes. In fact, our Amygdala––the portion of the brain that some Neuroscientists believe regulates fear and change itself, hates big changes.

Whether it’s quitting smoking, losing weight or simply improving a small step in how we complete our work, the size of the task we are being asked to improve dictates how successful we’ll be at sustaining those improvements over the long-haul.

Small, incremental changes are much easier for us to sustain since our Amygdala doesn’t recognize small change as a threat.

When I’m tasked with coaching leaders through improvement events, before we begin, I ask three things of the leader:

1. Which process can your team tackle in one to three days that will simultaneously allow employees to share some of the problems which prevent them from doing their jobs well, improve the organization’s productivity, and improve profits?

2. Who needs to be on the team for the results to be sustainable over the long haul?

3. How will you support your team during the event? Especially when their viewpoint as a value adding team member––one who physically or mentally does the value adding activities—differs from your understanding as a stakeholder?

If you’re not emotionally prepared to deal with the outcome and the team’s suggestions on how to improve your business, don’t waste your time scheduling an event. If you are, however, here’s a few things to consider.

1. If you’re just getting started on learning how to guide your team through an improvement event, pre-select an internal or external coach/consultant to help you facilitate it.

2. Don’t expect too much out of yourself during the event, since you are just learning how to coach your colleagues.

3. Be specific and stay focused on the deliverables you want the team to achieve. It’s easy to get side-tracked by bigger projects once your team starts identifying real improvements that need assistance right away.

4. Remember, you’re now a coach on the dance floor rather than the balcony. Your job is not to watch and tell them how to dance, but rather, to lead the ballet. Guide team members through the improvement process. Learn to teach others to fish by letting them fish, rather than doing the fishing for them.

If you’ll follow these simple steps for your next improvement event, you’ll find big change comes from even the smallest of good changes. Learn what employee engagement feels like to make this possible and you’ll be well on your way to sustainable and continuous improvements.

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Colin D. Baird is an operational turn-around and leadership consultant and the Managing Partner of Five Why Leaders. An organization that provides service to companies in crisis. He is also a consultant to TBM Consulting Group, a global leader in operational excellence with management consultants on four continents. Colin can be reached at colin@5whyleaders.com.