The Reason Your Team Isn’t Engaged Is Pretty Darn Simple

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Synopsis

Are you treating your employees like workers or family members? This simple distinction is the reason your employees lack focus and are completely disengaged.

What is the main difference between companies that have high engagement and those that have low engagement? It turns out to be amazingly simple: low engagement companies treat workers as mere employees, but high engagement companies treat workers in a way that shares characteristics similar to that of a family or marriage. That may sound like an easy or feel good claim, but it’s not that simple, oh, and did I mention there’s a “dark side?”

A few months ago as I arrived to a client meeting, I noticed their parking lot was undergoing some serious construction. There were marked off areas, cones, and vehicles parked in zones typically frowned upon for parking purposes like medians and curbs. Outside of looking like a great Jeep commercial, it was a bit of a mess.

Scribbling my name on their visitor log, noting my awful penmanship, I sat to wait for my client, Jerry. I noticed the architectural blue prints posted on a huge board in the lobby outlining parking lot progress. When he arrived he took me back past the main door, into the belly of their office filled with natural light from the giant skylight in their atrium.  

“Do you want a snack?” he said, doing a Vanna White sweep of his hand past a giant spread of pastries, donuts, orange juice, coffee and more donuts (I love donuts). “What is all this?” I asked. The answer was simple: because their parking situation was less than convenient they bought the entire company breakfast as a thank you for putting up with it. 

Companies repair and update things all the time, but for some reason they figured this was a good reason to buy breakfast. Jerry wasn’t bragging or treating this as unusual, it just seemed par for the course to him. It was common sense he apparently didn’t give a second thought to.

Rewind about a month, I had attended a conference with workers from the same company at an unrelated event. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about the conference, but their teams behavior was certainly unusual. They all had a lot of fun, supported each other and acted as if they were all best friends, even arriving together. Something was different about them. 

I’m not saying that making breakfast for your company is the magic bullet here. It certainly is not. I’m also not saying one great team night at a conference will change your company forever. Over time however, I’ve been fortunate enough to witness a pattern of a healthy company culture and it reminded me of something. They acted like a family and these family style companies are the ones that always have super high engagement rates. 

We could stop there and learn a lesson from Jerry’s company, unfortunately, it’s not all this straight forward. While families love each other and have each other’s back, treating workers like family exhibits some forms of engagement that some bosses may not want. Treating workers like family or mere employees changes them. To make this easy, I whipped together this chart. 

Work Characteristics: 

Relational Characteristics:

Did you notice anything interesting? What I find intriguing is while every leader prefers the family column regarding work characteristics, very few prefer the family column in when it comes to relational characteristics. Unfortunately for those leaders, you can’t separate the two.  

Many companies want the family attributes for their workers as it relates to the their work; they want employees to take ownership, be engaged and get creative. Alas, they are unwilling to treat them as family because they fear the implications of the relationship than may form. They want engagement, yet they keep employees at arms-length afraid if they get too close they will lose control. They worry that building strong relationships will make it hard to be objective. They even feel if they use kind words or show appreciation for an employees hard work, it will make it harder to legally fire them later. 

Sadly, this act is a self fulfilling prophecy. When you remove the family aspect from the equation and treat employees as task fulfillers a funny thing happens, they view themselves as a task fulfillers. They start to fulfill a duty and give up on pursuing greatness. They treat work as a simple exchange of services. They come on time, they put in the time and do only what’s asked of them. It makes perfect sense while they would become disengaged.

In order to have an engaged work force, you must first engage them by out-giving, out-loving and out-engaging them. Yes, there may be some ugly divorces, it will be painful, but only when employees are treated like family, will they will fully engage. And when they fully engage, they will create, they will innovate and they will go farther than your wildest dreams.

(Jerry’s name has been changed to protect the awesome.)

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Tags: employees, employers, engagement, human resources, justin brady, management

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