A Simple Guide to Building an Engaged Team


We don’t need tons of research to tell us the importance of having employees who are engaged in their work. It shows up in a lot of different ways that we can see. The result of an engaged set of employees shows up when an employee goes beyond his call of duty to serve a customer or when a team gets formed organically to address some specific issue that has cropped up during the day.

It is no surprise either when that having such an engaged workforce can and does become a true competitive advantage.

This also means that in a world with transient competitive advantage, businesses that are able to build an engaged workforce, which is also agile, becomes one of the top priority.

However, a leader can not expect to get an engaged workforce as a default. We need to build such teams, one at a time.

As they say,

This is simple, but ain’t easy.

It is also not a one time process that you increase the engagement levels and it will remain there. One needs to work hard to raise the engagement levels and work harder to keep it at that levels.

Having said that it is not easy, it need not be too difficult either. If done for the right reasons, building engagement can be a lot of fun and is definitely the right thing to do.

Building an Engaged Team

Here are a few things that we as leaders can do to work towards building an engaged workforce:

Hire & Fire people for their Attitude.

The engagement starts right from the first contact with an employee. It is important that while hiring people, we give more importance to their attitude towards work and if this fits the kind of attitude we want to have towards work inside of our teams. While some basic level of skills are needed to perform any job well, most of us can be trained to skill up but its much more difficult  to train for attitude. So, this means that we need to be slow to hire and be quick to fire (for attitude).

Compensate Well:

It is important that the issue of pay is taken off the table as early as possible. Pay the team well. If the business can afford, pay them better than your peers. If not, be creative and find different ways to compensate your employees (financially, psychologically, emotionally or physically). As long as employees think that they are not being compensated well, they can’t bring their whole self to work. Unless they bring their whole self to work, true engagement is not possible. So, take care of their compensation.

Respect & Trust:

Once the compensation is taken care of, then comes the emotional, psychological compensation. This is paid in terms of respect and trust. Respect to the different voices in the team, trust so that everyone feels it is ok for them to speak up, irrespective of what they are about to say. This is again something that one needs to give first in order to receive. So, as leaders, we need to respect every employees opinion and trust their judgement. We need to trust that they have the best interest of the team and the business in mind, irrespective of how conflicting they might sound to us in moments. We need to give the respect and trust in order to gain their respect and trust.

Train People for Skills:

We also need to constantly find ways and means to up-skill our teams. The cost of doing this is far less than the cost of not doing this. This need not break our balance sheets as there are a lot of different ways for us to continue to train people at low or even minimal costs. We need to be creative when it comes to learning. It is not sufficient to train people so they are able to up-skill, but equally important to find ways and means to create opportunities for the teams to put these learnings to use. It is only when something learnt is put to use, do we truly have the opportunity to internalise the learnings.

Culture or Stories: People like us do things like this:

Then comes the part that culture plays in building engagement. We need to be extremely clear in our communications about what is acceptable in our teams and what is not. What is expected and what is not. This can be done in three distinct ways that feed into one another and create an upward spiral.

The stories we tell: One of the most elementary trait that teams possess is their sense of identity – people on this team do things like this. Stories can be a very powerful medium to reinforce what behaviour is expected, appreciated and will not be tolerated.

Living the stories: As leaders, we not only communicate these stories but need to be living breathing examples of these stories. If we say that diversity of thought is important, do we allow and appreciate diversity of thoughts in our daily behaviours? If we shut out every voice that doesn’t agree with our vision and thoughts, we can forget about building any kind of engagement.

Rewarding the stories: Once our teams see that we truly live the values that we espouse and they start trusting us enough that they start living out the values themselves, we need to actively find these acts and recognise or reward them appropriately, in public. This gives others who are still on the edge confidence to come over to our side and start playing as a team.


Teams that have fun together are some of the most engaged teams. It requires us to let our guards down in order to really have a lot of fun. This only happens if we trust everyone around us. What this means, is that if we want to build engagement in our teams, we need to find ways and means to create the opportunity so that the teams can have fun together.

Listen & Engage

One of the most important criteria for engagement is that it is always two ways. We can not expect engagement unless we ourselves are engaged as well. What this means is that we need to know the pulse of our teams and are completely engaged with our teams and the work that we do together. This means that we are there for the team members when they need us – as friends, colleagues, managers or just another empathetic fellow human being.

We need to continue to look at the team and explore if they need anything that they themselves are not aware of yet.

Are they on the verge of a breakdown?

Are they having some difficulty in their personal lives that they need to give precedence to?

Are they in a phase of their lives, where spending more time at home with their families more important?

Are they in a phase of their lives, when they need to make a lot more money than they have in the past?

If we as leaders are able to find this and help them deal with these before they have to bring it up with us, we demonstrate that we are as much engaged, if not more and that each one of the team members matter to us.

Recognise & Reward:

As Ken Blanchard says in his legendary book – The One Minute Manager, we need to constantly look for behaviour that we can recognise and reward. Usually, we are looking for mistakes so we can punish people. Instead, if we are constantly on the look out for good behaviour that we can recognise and reward, we will find a lot more of them. The side effect of this is that every now and then there is a celebration in the air. This celebration creates opportunities for the teams to have fun together and revel in each other’s success.


Last but not the least, we need to set very clear expectations in terms of our goals. What I mean here is that it is better if we learn from the military and set a commander’s intent and constantly communicate the intent rather than having a very specific goal to gun for. Commander’s intent is a simple statement that tells us the objective and by when we want to achieve this objective. Every subsequent military leader then uses this commander’s intent to decide the best course of action on the ground so that the team can achieve the intent. This allows for the teams to bring in their full creative power to play and even change course as they see fit as long as they are operating in a way that suits our culture and takes us towards our objective. This is when true engagement can be seen in action.

In Conclusion:

Building an engaged team is not easy work. It takes a lot of intent, planning and an engaged leader who trusts his/her team.

Yes, it takes time and effort. But as I said earlier, it is simple but it ain’t easy.

Characteristics of A Great Employee Recognition Program

Organisational culture is turning out to be the last competitive advantage for businesses. One of the most important aspects of great organisational culture is engaged employees. Many studies have indicated the state of employee engagement and it doesn’t look good.

One of the ways that organisations can increase employee engagement is by ensuring that they are engaged with their employees and recognise & celebrate good work.

It is important to have a program for employee recognition that works. Some key characteristics of such a program are as follows:

Catch them Doing something right:

One of the habits that Sir Ken Blanchard had proposed in his seminal book – The One Minute Manager is the following – Catch them doing something right. Then publicly praise them – tell them what they did right and why it was important and how it helps the business. When done on a regular basis, you build a culture of catching people doing the right things and doing them right.

Public Recognition:

Once you have caught someone doing something right – praise in public. It is important that all recognition should happen in public.

This has two significant impacts:

  1. It shows everyone else that good behaviour is rewarded.
  2. It creates social pressure amongst peers to do well and get recognition.

This breeds trust amongst the team and creates a positive spiral of impact and builds good habits amongst the teams.

Peer recognition VS Managerial Recognition:

It is also well known that recognition from peers gives more satisfaction than recognition from the managers. So it is important that we need to implement a peer recognition program and peers are encouraged to catch their colleagues doing something right.


The recognition needs to be a close to the time when the employee has done something right and not wait for a formal feedback cycle. This tells employees that they are not only being watched but that their managers are engaged in their work. Engaged managers to engaged employees.

Gifts are Personalised:

If you plan to add gifts to the recognition, it is important that managers take time to understand the employees whom they want to recognise and understand what is important for them, in their current phase of their lives. Some prefer cash awards, some prefer gifts, others prefer something for their family members. Any gift that is personalised, based on the individual employee tells them that there is a lot of thought and effort that went into deciding the gifts.

Experiences over Things:

It is also very well known that humans quickly get used to any new stuff that they buy or get as a gift but the pleasure they derive from an experience is long lasting. They feel almost similar level of pleasure when they think about their experience as much they did when they actually had the experience. Shared experiences with friends and families are even better.

Every experience also gives them a story that they can share with their friends and family for a long time to come.

So, when you plan to include gifts, try to gift them ability experience new experiences rather than stuff.


A good employee recognition program is a fundamental need to engage employees and keep them engaged.

A good employee recognition program also gives a good foundation on which the business can build a high performance culture.


Strategies for Employee Engagement in a Gig Economy

EY recently announced the results of a Contingent Workforce Study that unearths key insights into the nature of the freelance or contingent workforce (the “gig economy”). Some of the key insights from the study regarding the future state of the Gig economy that they quote are as below:

By 2020, 25% of organizations expect to use 30% or more contingent workers and the proportion using less than 10% will fall from 35% in 2016 to 22% in 2020.

The gig economy is going to continue to grow, by 2020 almost one in five workers will be contingent workers.

Two in five organizations expect to increase their use of contingent workers over the next 5 years. Biggest increases expected by operations / service / production departments and IT.

Forty-four percent of organizations expect more regulation in relation to the contingent workforce.

You can access more information about the research and the key findings here.

If you are running a business, this will mean that you will need to do two things:

  1. Contingent Workforce: Create better framework to hire, engage, appraise and pay your contingent workforce in a way that moves your business forward. You would have to leverage technology in some form or the other to be able to do this seamlessly.
  2. Full-time Staff: You will need to re-look at how you manage projects, hire, engage, appraise and pay your existing employees. As a business, it would be extremely difficult to have two kinds of systems running in parallel for managing performances within the organisation.

This is where, I would believe that there needs to be a change in our approach to managing all of our workforce – contingent or other-wise.

In his book, Trust Factor, Paul Zak, shares the insight that it would be best to treat employees (all of them, irrespective of contingent or permanent) as volunteers. I also agree to this approach because, at the end of the day, all employees are volunteers – they CAN and DO decide if they want to bring their best selves to work or just do enough to get by without getting fired. They can and increasingly, often do leave their jobs to become contingent workers and their own bosses.

The moment you start treating your employees as volunteers, the whole approach to managing them will need to be re-thought.

How You Hire

Your hiring process needs to start looking at potential employees who are intrinsically motivated vs extrinsically motivated. They need to look at having a shared purpose before hiring the new workforce, as this is becoming more and more important for the new workforce.

How You Manage

You would need managers to start behaving differently. Command and control structures are getting more and more rare and will continue to lose relevance.

Managers need to start behaving like mentors and coaches who are tasked with primarily creating a culture and an environment, where the employees can flourish, thereby enabling the business to flourish.

In order to be able to do so, the managers will need to first earn the trust of their employees, before they can start coaching and mentoring them.

How You Appraise

You would need to re-look at the way we distribute work and manage the performances. In a world where there is almost 40% of the workforce is contingent, the way you appraise the performance needs to shift. There is already a lot of changes happening, with even large organisations experimenting with abolishing annual cycles of appraisals to regular, on-going appraisals.

I think most organisations would realise that it is not enough to do their regular appraisals, but also include a project based cycle of appraisals. This will afford the managers a way to clearly articulate and appraise performances by their full-time staff and their contingent work-force.

How you Re-assign

If the appraisal cycles will become project based, then the next logical step is for employees to look at the possibility of picking up projects that they would like to be a part of, once their existing projects are completed. We will also see that these employees might be involved in a couple of projects at the same time, for different teams as well. I have written about this in details here.


Building trust then becomes an essential part of the leaders, which, when done right, leads to a high-performance culture because it impacts the triple bottom line – it is good for employees, increases profits, and builds stronger communities.

A good way to start working on this is to start treating our employees as volunteers. Click To Tweet

The Future of Work in a Project Based, Consultant Driven world

The future of Work

This post assumes that the future towards which we are moving is a future where most work will be in the form of projects with the use of independent workers with specialised skills will continue to rise and my prediction is that soon, there will come a time when organisations will have a lot more external consultants working for them than their full time employees.

If you agree with this trend, then you will also agree the following:  how organisations identify, hire, retain and work with these highly skilled consultants and integrate them into the projects/programs will increasingly become core strengths of the organisation.

This is not an easy skill to build and will become critical if you do want to use this model for igniting fast track growth.

Some organisations like PwC and Washington Post are already taking the lead and exploring what could work when they have to work with a large pool of specialised skills available only as consultants. As mentioned in the HBR blog post titled – How PwC and The Washington Post Are Finding and Hiring External Talent, both the organisation have taken a similar approach of building a platform for them to make it easier for their teams to identify and engage these consultants with special skills on an ongoing basis.

I see that organisations will need to build special skills inside the organisation in order to be able to make the most of this arrangement:

Recruitment & On-Boarding:

The entire approach to recruitment of these consultants will need to evolve. The current approach of skimming and selecting through resumes will become even more redundant in this world. So, organisations will need to adapt to the changing needs and find new and more effective ways of recruiting talent who will work as consultants. The current approach is that someone knows someone who is considered good and she gets the order.

While this approach has its merits, I think that there is an opportunity for exploration and being creative about how to recruit these consultants. We could learn from the approach that 99Designs.com takes with their designers and create a central portal (there is an opportunity for  a player to be the 99designs equivalent) to be the platform where corporations can post their requirements and let the consultants pitch for being part of these projects. This will allow the corporations to judge the consultants not only on the basis of their resume, but also based on their approach to work, their creativity and their ability to convince and convert. Where possible, they can also run contests to get the the best results or solutions instead of running a project internally.

Once you hire a consultant, you don’t have the luxury of time to on-board them to get them to peak productivity. So, organisations will need to learn to optimise their on-boarding process to reach a level where some one once hired can be on-boarded as quickly as possible. This means that each project team will need to know exactly what kind of on-boarding is needed for which kind of consultants.

The operational process of hiring a consultant also needs to evolve from the current model of going through the entire procurement process. Organisations need to think about how can they make it easier, faster and cheaper to complete the operational tasks of hiring an external consultant or even an entire team.

Engagement & Productivity

Organisations today struggle to keep up employee engagement. There are horrible statistics going around the internet as to how dis-engaged the employees are in the corporate world. This is the case when the corporations have complete control of what they want to do with their employees. This can not remain the reality in a world where most of your highly skilled people are working as consultants and not as employees. The way organisations can have an impact on the engagement levels of an employee are inherently different from the way they can build engagement among the consultants. What works and what doesnt is something that each organisation will need to figure out for themselves. The important thing is that they need to be intentional about experimenting on this and systematically understanding what works and continue to do more of what works.

The way you measure an employees performance and the way you measure the consultant’s performance would necessarily need to be different.. Or not? Annual appraisal of employees is losing its importance even in the current knowledge economy. It becomes even more irrelevant in the project based, consultant driven world. The performance or productivity needs to be measured on an ongoing basis, every time a project milestone is achieved (or delayed).

In this world, How you compensate good and bad performance also needs to be thought through.. Traditional means of compensation might not be the best way to compensate. There might be situations where consultants would want to be paid in part based on how well their projects do, taking a bigger share of the profits or lose out if the project doesnt do too well. Corporations will need to be operationally prepared to operationalise these options as well..


The way you manage your full time employees vis-a-vis these consultants would also need to go through a change. Managers will need to be trained to understand the distinction between managing full time employees and the consultants. The way you manage conflicts, the way you build ideas, the amount of information you share among the people, the kind of impact you can have on their careers, how you measure progress, how you go about building and sustaining the kind of culture that as a manager you want in the team… There are many concerns that need to be thought through.

Where can we Learn from:

One industry that has always been ahead on the curve when it comes to using highly skilled consultants for building and releasing a lot of products is the “Film Industry”. There is a lot that we can learn about functioning in a consultant driven world from learning how movies are made, released and monetised.

There is a core team that every large production house relies on and has on their pay-rolls. Then we have a lot of independent writers, producers, directors who pitch story ideas (product/project) ideas to these production houses. They pick and choose the ideas that they want to bet on and then assemble an entire team of highly skilled consultants who come together to bring to life the product. Once the product is released and monetised, all these highly skilled people go back to their pool. The key thing here is that it is possible that these highly skilled consultants can be working on multiple projects at the same time.

Not all production houses have great processes that we can learn from, but I am sure that every production house has something that is worth learning from.


3 Strategies to Retaining Your Best Employees

3 Strategies for Employee Retention

Hiring the right people in your organisation is by itself a monumental task, but the process doesn’t end once the hire ins your organisation.

It is extremely critical to train and engage these employees so that you can help them attain peak performance.

Apart from this, you also need to have a strategy in place to retain your talent.

And this is not HR departments responsibility.

In fact, the responsibility of retaining the best employees rests with the CEO or the leader of the organisation.

Table stakes

Having a good compensation and benefits package is table-stakes. If you falter here, you will not be able to retain any of your talents and in the long run, this proves to be more expensive than offering a good package in the first place. The compensation need not be just along monetary terms. You can explore to customize the package based on the needs of the individual as well.

Strategies for Employee Retention:

Once you have the basics in place, there are three things that will help you retain your best talents.

There are three key strategies that leaders can use to ensure that they retain their best talent:

Train your managers

It is a well known fact that people often leave their mangers and not necessarily their organizations. Add to it, your managers define and maintain the culture of your organization and so it makes a lot of sense to train your managers well.

Train them to identify and nurture talent – the ability to recognize & praise good performance, coach when needed and reprimand when needed.

Provide them all the tools and authority needed to be able to perform a good job.

Train them to not hoard talent but to be free and open about letting their people grow in the organization.

Answer The “Why”

One way to answer the “Why should I care about this organization and stay here?” is to develop a vision with your team that you want to turn to reality.

This can be as audacious as John F Kennedy’s to put a man on moon and bring him back before the turn of the century or the “I have a dream” picture painted by Martin Luther King or being the most customer centric company on the planet goal of Jeff Bezos or as simple as to giving back to the society – through employment opportunities, investments in the local communities or even allowing each employee to choose their calling and contributing to it.

Just having this vision alone doesn’t help until you actively communicate where you are in the process and what is the next stop in the journey.

As long as your team believes that this is a worthwhile goal to achieve, they will remain united and motivated.

This is where good managers play a critical role.

Help them Grow

One of the ideas that hasn’t changed in a long time is that of the annual performance appraisal cycle. In times when consistency was more critical than adaptation, the annual cycles were of big help. However, in todays, ever changing Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world, it is a good idea to dump the annual cycle and instead take a quarterly cycle of performance appraisals and goal settings.

Be ready to let your employees grow whenever they are ready rather than at specific time periods. By growth, I don’t necessarily mean promotions but growth in their areas of responsibility. Allow them to pitch to you or to their managers why they think they are ready to take on more responsibility and more often than not, allow them to take on more.

They might not be able to carry it off every but you will still benefit from having built a culture where initiative is respected. It will also allow you to identify good talent early and benefit from their drive and performances.


I do know that these are not your typical strategies that you find when it comes to employee retention, but I have seen that these are fundamentally good strategies and have the added advantage of fueling the growth of you business in addition to allowing you to retain your talents.