Engaging the unengaged

 I recently wrote an article about sucking the air out of your team.  It was a fairly pointed article suggesting that leaders who do not facilitate the engagement of their teams risk actually disengaging them.  This can occur when leaders prescribe and dictate what to do, rather than create ownership through sharing ideas and possible solutions. 

Shortly after that posted I received the following question so I thought I would answer here.

“What happens when you ask a team member to suggest a solution or develop steps for a process and they say, “just tell me what to do.”  I’ve had this a couple of times when processes were broken and I asked the employee who does it to propose a different way to eliminate errors or improve efficiencies.   One time really stands out when the person just refused to offer suggestions, even though she performed the duties and made frequent mistakes.  I specifically said, I don’t handle this process, you do, so I’m looking for your ideas/suggestions.  We think differently and how I would do it isn’t necessarily the way you would/should do it.  She still refused.”

When I first read the question I thought, “Oh my, you just don’t have the right employee.”  Then I realized that was far too simplistic an answer.  It might indeed be the answer but it makes sense to dig a little deeper before summarily dismissing the employee.

What could be happening when the employee just won’t get engaged?


There may be history here where the employee has tried to suggest an idea for a solution and was met by something like the big, bad, “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” Or colleagues had shared a similar experience within the organization that influenced this employee’s reaction.

History may come from a long line of prior supervisors from other organizations who shut down engagement and killed trust.   Their interactions with you may be just fine, but that lingering memory of being shut down may be getting in their way.

Lack of confidence

No one wants to look stupid.  Even those who appear to be very confident may be reluctant to place themselves in a situation of being wrong or worse, appearing stupid.

History may play a part here too because memories of humiliation last a very long time. The physical situation – being in the same room with peers when asked, for example – may be enough to quiet all but the most experienced (or confident) contributor.


Many of us grew up in an age where social strata prescribed who could and should talk, and when. Today we know that good ideas come from all levels of experience, scope and role. Some may carry that old paradigm with them and need permission to offer ideas and solutions.

Even without being constrained by social status, some are naturally reluctant to speak up on a topic with which they are not greatly familiar.   Sometimes the best ideas come from dumb questions but most people need to be told that “dumb questions are really valued.”

How can you create an environment where employees speak up and contribute? There are a few ways.

Create an environment of psychological safety

Look around your team. Do all members of the team value everyone’s contributions? Do some give either verbal or non-verbal feedback that shuts down others?  Do you?

Shutting down others comes in many forms.  It can present as defensiveness, as eye rolling, as nit-picking or any other forms of feedback that says, “Like, no!”

As a leader you can set expectations with the team as a whole but letting them know you want and value their input.  One CEO we worked with went so far as to include “Giving me helpful insight and feedback” as part of his performance criteria.

You can also set expectations individually by helping others be more aware of their behavior in the team.  Feedback when team members roll their eyes, act defensive or otherwise cause someone else to clam up deserves immediate feedback, and a reiteration of the expected behavior in the whole team.

Don’t make assumptions

Chances are good that you don’t know what’s going on in your employees’ head all the time; you don’t know their motivation. You can ask.

One of the more powerful tools any leader has is to put a mirror in front of someone, explain what is observed, and ask why.  Non-verbal communication tools are helpful here, so be genuine in explainining what you observe and what you expect.  Ask good questions to begin to understand where the reluctance might be, without stepping too far into privacy.

You may have to ask again.  And again.  Because if the reluctance is based on a long history, it will take equally long to develop trust. 

Make it clear you want their input and have patience

Once you have given permission and expressed your expectation of contribution, sit back and observe.  It won’t take too long for you to see if they just don’t want to “play the game.”  If that is the case, you’re back to not having the right employee in the job.

But if you see sparks of interest, tentative attempts at contributing, encourage the employees.  Perhaps break the task down into small pieces and get their input on just one piece.  Try their suggestion and let them know how much you value their contribution. 

As a leader, you need your employees’ input.  And you need employees that are willing to give input.  You need to set the expectations, generate trust and create a safe space for ideas.  If the contribution is still not coming, you may need to look at whether or not the employee is in the right role.

Do you suck the life out of your team?

I started reading “An Everyone Culture” recently and came across a personal story that blew me away.  The book follows three true learning organizations, and then analyzes the commonalities to propose a method that any organization can use to become a “DDO – a deliberately developmental organization.  Good read.

In the story, a leader described feedback she’d received from a subordinate whom she called her “canary in a coal mine.” He said that he felt the room go cold when things weren’t going her way.  After much grueling soul searching, the leader concluded that “for people to be able to flourish, they would need to do it in their own way, and not the way I thought was the way.” (p.39) Wow!

You can’t read any business journal today without seeing the words “employee engagement.”  We hear from Gallup that 87% of the workforce is not engaged. And thousands of vendors will sell you the panacea.

Perhaps this courageous leader in the book gained insight into a different way of engaging employees – not disengaging them?  I would propose that all the engagement tools in the arsenal are useless if intentional disengagement is in play.

Somewhere back in the 1990s organizational psychologists began to demean the “command and control” leadership style of the industrial age, and tout a more “participative leadership” style and inevitably vendors set up shop to help organizations make the transition and management fads took off.

It was about the same time that organizations were downsizing and the highly effective “management training program” that hired and trained to leadership skills fell prey to cost cutting.  It was much less costly to take the best worker and promote her to manager (sorry, the sarcasm just came out).

Let me get to my point. If today’s leaders cling to the concept that they know what to do and how to do it better than others and they allow others to see this bias, they cannot engage their team.  They suck the life out of the team. (more…)