A Simple Guide to Building an Engaged Team

Premise:

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.

Play:

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.

Goals

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.

The 12 Stages of Burnout

Premise:

As leaders and entrepreneurs, we are people with a lot of drive and motivation to do stuff. In our hustle to make progress, we often don’t realise if we start suffering from burnout until it’s too late.  So, when I looked up for a reliable way for us to find out if we are suffering from burn out, I came across this white paper written by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North.

12 Phases of Burn out

They have divided burning out  into 12 phases. You can read their entire paper here.  The 12 phases are as below. The important thing is that they need or may  not occur sequentially. So, if we are showing multiple symptoms from this list, we need to take care of ourselves.

The Compulsion to Prove Oneself;

This compulsion is often found at the beginning as excessive ambition. This is one’s desire to prove themselves while at the workplace. This desire turns into determination and later into compulsion. While determination is good and is a positive indication, compulsion is not.

Working Harder;

When we enter a phase of our life when we find ourselves unable to switch off and are driven to prove to others and start believing that we are indispensable, we are in dangerous territory. This generally means that we take on too much work. This is also characterised by inability or unwillingness to seek help or delegate.

Neglecting Own Needs;

This phase kicks in when we start experiencing erratic sleeping patterns. Lack of sleep or signs of tiredness when we wake up is a clear indication that we should take seriously. Similarly, our eating pattern is also disrupted. This phase is also accompanied by a lack of any kind of social interactions.

Displacement of Conflicts;

We are in this phase when we become aware that what we are doing is not right, but we are unable to see the source of the problem. This could lead to a crisis. This is when the first physical symptoms are expressed and we may start to feel threatened, panicky and jittery.

Revision of Values; 

In this phase, our values get skewed. We are no longer spending time with our family and friends. We lose track of our hobbies and think of them as irrelevant and consider them to be a waste of our time and attention. The only remaining focus of our lives that remains is our work.

Denial of Emerging Problems;

We become intolerant towards everyone around us. We start perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined. All social contacts become difficult and social conflict becomes extremely difficult to handle. We turn into permanent cynics and become aggressive. We start blaming every problem to be caused by time pressure and demands of our work. It becomes difficult for us to see that we are responsible for this state of affairs.

Withdrawal;

We are in this phase when our social life is extremely small or even non-existent. We want to feel relief from stress and turn to stimulants like alcohol or drugs or something similar.

Odd Behavioural Changes;

We are in this phase when our changes in behaviour becomes extremely obvious to our friends and family. They start showing their concern and we seem to be totally oblivious of these changes in our behaviour. They start getting very concerned for us. This is also when friends and family might start asking us to seek professional help.

De-personalization;

We are in this phase when we stop seeing neither ourself nor others as valuable. We are no longer able to perceive own needs. We lose touch with ourselves and what we want. This is the phase when we are not sure why we are doing whatever it is that we are doing.

Inner Emptiness;

We are in this phase when we start feeling empty inside and to overcome this, look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs. In this phased all our activities are often exaggerated. We tend to move towards extreme forms of expressions and behaviour.

Depression;

We are in this phase, when we start feeling lost and unsure. We start feeling exhausted – mentally, physically and emotionally. The future feels bleak and dark. We dont see any reason to get up and go do what we were doing all this time. We stop seeing the value in everything that we have done so far.

Burnout Syndrome;

When we are in this phase, we can have total mental and physical collapse. This is also the time when we might have panic attacks and might even start contemplating leaving everything behind and moving on. This is time for full medical attention.

In Conclusion:

When we push our creativity and productivity to its limits, we can easily find ourselves teetering on brink of burnout. And there’s a fine line between being in the zone and falling down the slippery slope of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion.

Therefore, we would do ourselves a favour by occasionally referring back to this list to self-diagnose. And when we see multiple symptoms, to start seeking help. It would also be a great idea to share this list with someone close to ourselves – spouse, business partner, friend or a mentor and ask them to let you know if you wander close to any of these phases so you can take corrective action.

In the same white paper, both the authors also share some coping mechanisms that are worth exploring.

If we find ourselves burnt out, Andew Ayres-Deets, wrote insightful and practical blog post on how to bounce back after burning out, that’s worth a read.

Some other very interesting posts on this topics are as below. Do take some time to read through them.

3 Kinds of Burnout

 11 Ways to Avoid Burnout.

How Overachievers Stay Sane

How to Spot Burnout (and Recover).

Nik Shuliahin

Leap When You’re “Almost Ready”

It was almost 9 years ago. We were at a team building outbound in an adventure camp. Among other adventure games, we also had the opportunity to try out Bungee jumping. It was not very high, maybe about 250 ft tall crane from which we were supposed to jump off of.

Having participated in all the adventure games, we wanted to try bungee. Out of the 12 odd people in the team, only three people were willing to jump. I was one of the three. One of my friends who thought that this was a crazy act warned me and asked why did I want to even think of attempting.

My response – “How hard could it be? Any way we will have all the safety precautions to ensure that there are no accidents. Also, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and so why lose it?”

I wanted to go first. So, I got ready and wore the harness and all the other safety gear and went up to the platform from where we were to jump off. The instructor at the top of the platform first congratulated me for having the courage to be the first to attempt this in my team. He also suggested that this is an experience that I will not forget for a long time. He then warned me – “Don’t look down and you will be alright”.

Now, as it happens, when someone says, “Don’t look down”, the first thing we do is to look down. I have since read that our brains don’t understand don’t. So, for the brain, there is no difference between the instruction – “Don’t look down” and “Look down”. So, we instinctively do that. The moment I looked down, my primitive brain started working overtime. Fear kicked in. I was no longer sure if I wanted to do this.

The instructor said that I will have to jump off on the count of three. He counted – 1, 2 and 3. Nothing happened. I told him that I don’t want to do this and I would like to go down. He said, the only way down is by jumping off. He again reiterated that it is perfectly safe for me to do this. He again said, that I need to jump off at the count of three.

He counted 1, 2 and just pushed me off the ramp. The first few seconds was terrifying. Then I really enjoyed the jump thoroughly. The adrenaline hit that you get when you do this is something that can’t be explained. It needs to be experienced and felt.

I guess life is like that as well. We are never ready for anything in life. We need to take off before we are ready.

If we are lucky, we might have someone around us who believes in us and can nudge or push us,  just like the trainer did push me.

This could be our coach, friend, mentor or anyone else, who is around to interrupt our deliberating, doubt and procrastination — and push us out the ramp before we realize what’s happening!

We don’t wait to start a company when we feel ready to, because we’ll never feel ready. We start a company when we feel almost ready.

Let’s not take the job that we feel fully prepared for. Lets stretch ourself. Push ourself. Let’s take the job we feel almost ready for.

“Almost ready” is similar to The 80% Rule. Ronald Reagan argued that you don’t need someone to agree with you 100% for them to be “with you” — you just need them to be with you on 80% of the issues. That’s usually enough for them to pledge their support.

The 80% Rule applied to ourself would mean we don’t need to be 100% sure of a decision for it to be the right decision. We just need to be 80% sure — or, almost ready.

How can We Encourage Experimentation and Risk Taking Among Our Employees

This is one of those stories that we hope never happened with us.

I was a fresh graduate with no experience and in my first job. I had decent success in my first job and had reached a point where I had built enough trust with my boss that he allowed me to run one of his branch office. As part of the role, I was supposed to handle sales and procurement both. And in my eagerness to do well for my company, I sold a specific product to a customer at a price that was deeply discounted (I quoted the price of a different quality of the same product) and so got the order confirmed. It is only when I informed my boss, that he realised the mistake I had made. What he did then has shaped my entire career.

First, he asked me if the customer has confirmed the order. When I said that I have a confirmed order, he asked me to dispatch the order as per the agreed terms. He asked me to talk to the customer to check if he could make some payment upfront as an advance, if possible. Try to get this done, without any discussion of the price or the mistake that was made. If it works, it works, if not, it is fine as well. As it happens, the customer agreed to pay 30% of the invoice value as advance. We dispatched the material as per the price I had quoted.

When I met my boss the next time (he was in a different city), I profusely apologised for my mistake as the loss on account of the single order was more than 10 times my annual salary. He said, it is ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from the mistake and don’t repeat it. Your making mistakes shows that you are willing to take risks and push boundaries. This is good for both you and the company.

This one conversation helped me realise (now when I look back) the importance of taking smart risks and that it is ok to fail and mess up, as long as you learn from them. This also taught me that as an entrepreneur, it is important to teach and allow our employees to take smart risks and push boundaries.

The question is what can we do to create a culture where not only is this ok, but is encouraged.

Before we go ahead, we need to understand what I mean by smart risks. First step is to redefine the term risk. Instead of calling it taking risks, we are much better off, calling them experiments. So, what kinds of experiments are smart experiments that we want to encourage our employees to take.

S – Simple:

We need to teach our employees what a simple experiment is and what is not. Any action that the employee takes that is self-contained, the risk associated with that is a simple risk and the experiment is a simple experiment. Any action that can have an impact on multiple sides of for business and can’t be self-contained is a complex risk or a complex experiment.

M – Manageable:

Any experiment that if failed, has the potential to threaten the business or a significant part of the business is non-manageable and the employees need to come us as entrepreneurs with such ideas and we should decide if we go ahead or not. Any experiment that is small enough that even if it fails, it doesn’t threaten the business, is a manageable experiment. It is always a good idea that we start encouraging our employees to start with experiments that have minimal downside and then  continue to increase this limit for employees as they become more experienced. We can also start with certain limits within which employees are encouraged to experiment.

A – Astute:

Any experiment is an astute one if it has a potential upside irrespective of what the actual results of the experiment are. This only comes with experience and we need to teach our employees to design experiments which are astute. Once they learn to design such experiments, we can allow them to continue to increase their scope, gradually.   

R – Retractable:

If the experiment is designed in such a way that they are retractable as and when needed, they are retractable experiments. These are by nature simple and contained and can be easily retractable. These kinds of experiments serve as good starting point for employees to build their experimentation muscles.

T – Teaches something (irrespective of failure or success):

The goal of every experiment is for us to learn something valuable – irrespective of the experiment’s results. It is important that these teachings are not contained with the employee who ran the experiment but the learning is shared with all the employees, so they all learn from the experiment.

It is not enough for us as entrepreneurs to define what a SMART experiment looks like and how to design one for our employees to start experimenting. We need to walk the talk.

It is in this context that I would like to share this analogy:

Are you a Lifeguard or a Swimmer?  

Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate (2012) asks this great metaphorical question about whether or not you are walking the talk.

He explains: 

“Lifeguards sit above the action and supervise the pool. Although he or she is focused, there is a distinct sense of separateness both physically and mentally. In contrast, a swimmer is out participating and an integral part of the action.” (pp.14-15)

We need to model the behaviour that we expect of our employees and at the same time, recognise and reward the behaviour that we expect from our employees. Without reward and/or recognition, this will just become one of those things that we say and everyone listens with both their ears (in from one and out from the other) and nothing changes.

The reward for having enterprising employees who are willing to design experiments to learn and push the envelope is something that all of us entrepreneurs yearn for as this gives us leverage like no other action can. Suddenly, we can find that employees are engaged, trying new stuff and learning from them.

One key insight here is that while we want to encourage risk taking through experimentation, we don’t want to rock the boat. So, it can also help to identify certain areas of our business that are ripe for experimentation and unleash our employees to design and run experiments in that specific area. This restriction and focus at times brings out the best creativity amongst our employees and has the potential to bring in game-changing results for us. This area can change every quarter or half-year, depending upon where in our business do we need a burst of creativity.

One of the most important thing that we can do to encourage SMART experimentation is to acknowledge every effort and coach the teams at the end of every experiment. The coaching can be very simple things like asking them some very pointed questions like the following: 

Coaching Questions at the end of every experiment

1. Why did you design the experiment the way you designed? What other options did you consider before finalising this design?

2. What was your purpose of running this experiment? Did you achieve what you set out to achieve? How? Why not (if the experiment failed)?

3. Given that you have now finished your experiment, what could you have done differently? Did you think of that while designing the experiment? IF yes, why did you not go with that option? What assumptions did you have that indicated you go with the design you went with?

4. What have you learnt from the experiment, that you did not already know? Why?

5. Based on what you have learnt, what can we do differently going forward?

Conclusion

These questions will help the team reflect on their experiment and internalize their learning. Knowing that they will have to answer these questions at the end of each experiment will also force them to document their thinking while designing the experiments, which when they revisit at the end of the experiment will give them a very good sense of what they were right about and where they were off the mark to start with.

This will also show people that we value both successful and failed experiments equally and thereby will encourage more smart experimentation amongst our employees.

What’s Killing our Creativity?

Scene 1:

I was visiting a hospital today to visit someone who is admitted there to get through a minor surgery. He was supposed to check into the hospital at noon on a given date and check out at about 4:00PM the next day. This means that he had to spend about 28 hours in the hospital. Even for these 28 hours when he was in the hospital, when he was officially on medical leave, he was still working. He was checking his email, responding to his calls and even checking his social media feeds (twitter, Facebook, linked and Instagram).

When probed, he asked me the following question –

“What am I supposed to do if I am not checking my emails or my social media feed? Just sit there and do what?”

At that time, I just let that pass but his question kept coming back to me making me think about what would my behaviour be in such a situation? When I thought about it and if I have to be honest, I would have done a few things differently. Maybe I would have scanned my email once in a while to ensure that there is no fire that needs to be put out. I am fortunate that I don’t necessarily have a lot of fire to put out. So, that would not be an issue with me. I would have picked up a book and read it. Alternately, I would have used the time to catch up on a movie.

What would you do if you were in a such a situation? Are you able to completely disconnect from work or from social media?

If you are like most of us, you would have done something similar.

IF we look at this at a slightly deeper level, we can find that we all want to do something so that we feel busy. We want to feel that we are achieving something.

Scene 2:

Now, lets look at a completely different scene.

We are at work and are in a fix over some issue and need to find a solution to fix it. The issue is not something that has a single right way to solve. And the more creative we are, the better the solution could be. We gather our team around in a room and want to do engage in a brainstorming session. The facilitator sets up the context and wants us to come up with creative ideas that could potentially solve the issue at hand.

We try to come up with some regular ideas, that are neither surprising nor creative. Has this ever happen with you?

I can assure you that most people struggle with coming up with creative ideas. I teach design thinking to experienced executives and as part of the workshop, the participants are required to come up with 25 creative ideas to solve a given challenge. It has never happened in over 100 such cohorts that someone has come up with even 20 ideas (forget creative ideas).

While on the outside, these two scenes may seem to disparate and not connected, research indicates that one is the cause for the other. The fact that we almost always opt to staying busy all the time is probably the cause of the difficulty in coming up with creative ideas. 

Among many qualities that suffer, recent research shows creativity takes a hit when we are constantly busy. The ability to switch between a state of focus and daydreaming is an important skill for being creative. Constant busyness has a significant impact on this ability, thereby making it more difficult to be creative.

Stanford’s Emma Seppälä writes

The idea is to balance linear thinking—which requires intense focus—with creative thinking, which is borne out of idleness. Switching between the two modes seems to be the optimal way to do good, inventive work.

We now consume up to five times as much information as 25 years prior; outside of work we process roughly 100,000 words every day. This saps us of not only willpower (of which we have a limited store) but diminishes our ability to think creatively as well.

Creativity engages the brain’s daydreaming mode directly and stimulates the free flow and association of ideas, forging links between concepts and neural modes that might not otherwise be made. Creativity is all about making non-obvious connection between disparate and disconnected ideas. So, we will struggle to be creative if we are unable to access the daydreaming mode as and when we need. 

This is impossible when every free moment—at work, in line, at a traffic light—we’re reaching for our phone. Our brain becomes habitual to constant stimulation; we grow antsy and irritable when we don’t get that stimulation. At this time we can be sure that we’re addicted to busyness. 

And that’s not so good for us, specially when if we are required to be creative at a moment’s notice. As Seppälä points out many of the world’s greatest minds made important discoveries while not doing much at all. Nikola Tesla had an insight about rotating magnetic fields on a leisurely walk in Budapest; Albert Einstein liked to chill out and listen to Mozart on breaks from intense thinking sessions and even play his violin.

If being creative is important for us, we might have to engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume so that we have time to allow boredom and allow our minds to wander. Otherwise we run the risk of our lives becoming like a Morse code transmission that’s lacking breaks — a swarm of noise blanketing the valuable data beneath. 

So, the question that we need to ponder is the following:

How to disconnect in a time when connection is demanded by bosses, peers, and friends?

  1. Make time for a long walk without our phones. Incorporate this as a daily routine.
  2. Stop taking our phone out at every opportunity. Start with deciding not to take our phone out when you are waiting for the traffic light to turn from red to green or when we are waiting in a que at a shopping mall to pay for our purchases.
  3. Make more time for fun and games. It is well-known that taking time and having fun by playing games resets the focus and activates the part of brain that is responsible for creativity.
  4. Alternate between doing focused work and activities that are less intellectually demanding. Schedule downtime after every session of focused activity. It could be as simple as taking a 15 minute break before engaging in yet another activity that requires us to focus.

If our work requires us to be creative-on-demand, we need to exercise our creative muscles as well. We would be well off if we make it a part of our daily routine to come up with a set of creative ideas (irrespective of whether we need them or not). This is very similar to digging a well, much before we need water to drink.

If we spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and we run the risk of permanently reducing our capacity to perform creative work.

That’s not a good sign for those who wish to perform creatively, which in reality is all of us and more specifically is a bad news for all of us entrepreneurs.

Research shows that the fear of missing out (FOMO) increases anxiety and takes a toll on your health in the long run.

Of all the things to suffer, ability to think creatively is one of our greatest losses. As entrepreneurs, a flexible mindset, open to new ideas and approaches is invaluable. Losing it just to check on the latest tweet or post an irrelevant selfie is an avoidable but sadly sanctioned tragedy.