How to Improve the engagement of your staff

“Knowing your Talent is as important as knowing your numbers”

Stacy Feiner (2015)

Firstly, a quick win …… walk about and talk to your people, show interest in them and thank them for particular contributions they are making.  For this to be effective, it needs to be sincere and related to very specific actions the individual has taken. When doing this, and indeed when giving any form of performance feedback, I find it helpful to think about emulating a sports coach. I endeavour to be very specific and start by reminding the individual about a specific aspect of their performance (in as an objective way as possible) and then making a specific suggestion for improving performance in that specific activity. As Tom Peters (2012) has observed, there is no greater gift to people whom you engage, than a heartfelt (as well as head-felt) acknowledgement of their contribution and fundamental human worth.  When these conversations are taking place, during a period of significant change, you have a great opening to explain the Big Opportunity behind the change initiative – as part of creating a sense of urgency for the change.

“It is important that executives keep acknowledging and reinforcing it [the opportunity the change is addressing] so that people will wake up every morning determined to find some action they can take in their day to move toward the opportunity.”

John Kotter (2014)

Subsequently, frequent feedback on progress and an honest dialogue about elements of the change that may not be working can help encourage sustained staff engagement.

Secondly, promote a concerted effort to institutionalise the identification and development of innovative ideas into your enterprise DNA. One tactic that leaders can use is to provide individuals with top cover by tolerating new ideas that do not work. Clearly there are limits to this but we need to create a climate where individuals are not punished for being innovative. A mechanism I have seen work well (at Andersen Consulting) is to expect that people at all levels check their thinking with peers or managers before trying novel approaches. Bear in mind that individuals who are angry with an issue may be difficult to manage, but can be a great engine to power change.[i] It is therefore worth spending time engaging them rather than avoiding them.

Thirdly, recognise diversity. Different People have different circumstances, needs & motivators. Actions that are tuned to individuals will therefore be the most effective in raising commitment and employee engagement. We should expect that for some people, your enterprise will be the most important thing in their life, for others it will but one of a portfolio of interests.

“When we only try to understand and affect what happens at work, we ignore the most basic tenet of person-organisation fit: employees bring their whole selves to work. What happens after the workday may be just as important as what happens during it.”

Susan La Motte

I believe that it is helpful to think about your people in a number of different dimensions, as you consider potential actions to improve commitment and engagement.  As an aid to better understanding your people consider where you assess each of your key people on the following five dimensions:


  1. Length of Service

As a gymnastics coach in my youth, a frequent challenge was to help performers rise above performance plateaus. This involved a mix of increasing technical skills and giving them the confidence to try new things. For example adjusting a gymnasts technique so that they achieved more height in a backwards somersault, as a prelude to introducing a twist into the somersault (which would generate the performer more points for difficulty and risk). This was achieved most consistently by taking the performer through a sequence of development steps to give them the confidence to go for it.  A skill was identifying those with the potential to rise above the current performance level and then form a programme of actions to exploit that potential. Applying this approach to the talent in your enterprise can start with you identifying who is operating at a plateau, but has the potential to contribute more? You might like to also think about the gap between each individual’s performance and the expectation you had for him or her when they joined your team. Should you consider them for a move to a new role, for a training course to raise their skills, or can you involve them in a special project?

2.         Personal Ambition

Taking this thinking a stage further, consider the level of ambition that each employee displays. Then ask whether the individual`s level of ambition is realistic and if so whether it is being adequately fuelled by you and your colleagues.  Do you have any individuals, in segment A (above), that have particular development needs? How can you help them to raise their current level of performance, or perhaps coach them to better align their ambition and performance?

3.   Future Potential

How much potential does each person on your team possess? It can be helpful to think of future potential as a combination of ambition and a personal engine to propel the individual along the journey towards the ambition’s destination. Is there a mismatch between current performance and future potential? If there is, how can you help the individual to close the gap? Are the people in Segment A gaining sufficient personal satisfaction to be fully committed to your enterprise?

4. Value to the Enterprise

Plot a cross section of your people onto this graph. Do you have people in Quadrant A that need a performance improvement plan or potentially a move out of your enterprise?

 5. Individual Satisfaction

Do you have people who are contributing great value to your organisation that are not gaining individual satisfaction from their work? Those who are in the area shown as Box C in the graph are at particular risk of moving to new employment, because they feel the benefit of some satisfaction. You might like to consider special projects or other responsibilities for people in this category, to raise their level of satisfaction. It would also be prudent to consider, as a matter of priority, succession plans for people in this group, and for those in category A. Finally consider what impact people in category B are having on the rest of your employees and seriously consider whether they have a future in your enterprise. If they do not, how can they be given opportunities to leave your enterprise with dignity?

Next Steps:

Develop a meaningful dialogue with each of the people you are directly responsible for. This can flow from:

  • The insights on your people that you have gained, including their interests and commitments away from work.
  • Your understanding of your enterprise strategy, and in particular, the strategic themes driving your goals and objectives. What does this mean for the behaviours needed from your people? Developing Strategic Themes was an area of focus in the last chapter.
  • Your personal point of view on how the people in your enterprise can and should develop their personal capabilities.

If you have uncertainties about the potential of your Managers and Directors, I suggest that you consider using a diagnostic such as Pinsight[ii] . This assesses individuals, using a business simulation, in relation to business imperatives that you identify. For example, Increase Customer Satisfaction by improved Customer Service or Align the Team with Organisational Strategy. In his New Year 2015 Blog[iii], Martin Lanik the CEO of Pinsight, emphasises the importance of deliberate practice and I believe that this applies to both Leaders and followers.

“Deliberately practicing few very specific exercises is the key to building habits and showing visible improvement. The same way personal trainers target specific exercises to isolated muscle groups, you can build exercises that target specific skills of employees. When a manager needs to better empower her team, she could first practice asking questions instead of giving advice.”

The aim should be to agree both personal commitments to the enterprise and enterprise commitments to the individual, that align as far as possible with the needs of both parties. The shared understanding developed in this process can then provide a launch pad for improved commitment and performance – and move people up the commitment ladder.  In an ideal world, these would form the basis of:

  1. A personal development plan.
  2. An entry in a readily accessible system to ensure that the individual’s interests are visible when decisions are being made on appointments, or the staffing of initiatives.

As Carol Walker wrote in her 16 September 2015 Harvard Business Review Blog:

“… assigning work should be a thoughtful process that balances business goals with an individual’s interest, skills, and development needs. Not every routine task has to be so thoroughly considered. But whenever significant assignments are made, putting them into context maximizes their impact. An employee who understands why she has been asked to do something is far more likely to assume true ownership for the assignment.”

Approaches such as this can help promote proactive management of the talent you have in your enterprise. This should help you achieve the win-win-win, of better achievement of enterprise goals, more satisfied people and better development of the capabilities needed for future success. For example if you have noted that the accuracy of your sales forecasts is being degraded as a result of one individual, this person’s development plan could usefully include coaching / training[iv] on how to develop better assumptions for their forecasts.

“Great leadership is about creating a free and open conversation within a framework of shared values, share visions and shared understanding.”

Janice Caplan (2013)

[i] Peters, T., “Angry people make Change”,, 2010.



[iv] Lunn, B., “Mindshare to Marketshare”, Amazon, 2014.