Creating a Culture of High Engagement – And a Future That is Bigger and Better than Your Past

Marissa Levin
Marissa Levin
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How engaged are you in building a bigger and better future for you, your company, your family, our world?

That was one of the questions I pondered as I absorbed every word that Matthew Kelly delivered at a recent Entrepreneurs Organization ( event. Kelly is a master organizational consultant to several Fortune 500 organizations on the issue of employee engagement. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller “Off-Balance” and “The Dream Manager.” Kelly led 125 entrepreneurs through the thought-provoking exercise of questioning our own engagement, as well as the engagement of those around us, such as our employees.

“Everything built in history has been built by people who think the future will be bigger than the past,” said Kelly. “Employees don’t always think that. Employee engagement follows a spectrum. On one side you have employees that are fully and passionately engaged. Then it continues to 80 percent, 60 percent, 40 percent, 20 percent, and then finally to the Q&S employees: those that Quit and Stay. They quit but they don’t tell anyone. These employees are completely disengaged, toxic, and destructive. Imagine the damage that a disengaged employee could do with your top customer.”

Those that live an engaged life are excited about a bigger future. This doesn’t just apply to work. It applies to our relationships with our spouses, children, friends, extended family, and communities. In every aspect of our lives, we are either constantly engaged or disengaged.

Those that are disengaged are those that don’t believe the future will be bigger and brighter.  They don’t believe they have control over the outcome. These are the people that don’t show up to vote in an election because they believe their one vote won’t make a difference, or that a change in leadership won’t make a difference. These are the people who skip their workouts or choose not to change unhealthy habits because they feel that one minor change can’t make a big impact.

Driving high employee engagement with little time for rest

In the business environment, one of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to drive high engagement. Especially in this environment, how can a leader ensure that its employees are passionately engaged in the mission of the company?

It’s not an easy challenge.

In the business environment 20 years ago, before the era of 24/7/365 communications, businesses would push really hard to achieve a goal, and then plateau. The plateau was a time for rest. We spent more time with the family, with ourselves, and we recharged.  The business environment delivered us the luxury of disconnecting, taking the foot off the gas pedal, and coasting for a bit.

In today’s environment, businesses push hard, and then we have to go straight into another push. There are no more plateaus.  The biggest problem with this shift is that most of us live for the plateaus, but now they are nonexistent. Consequently, we burn ourselves out with the push after push.

So how can organization stay healthy? How can a leader build a culture that fosters continuous high engagement with its employees, even though the pressure is always on high?

According to Kelly, organizations need two things: smart people and a healthy environment.

Seems simple, but it’s really not. Many organizations think that if they get great talent, that will be enough. This is a sports mentality – get me great performers and I’ll land a win. The truth is, talent is not enough.

Your people do need to be smart in the areas of strategy, marketing, finance, technical skills, industry knowledge, and clarity of purpose. If you have a team that fills these buckets, you’re in really good shape.

However, to be in great shape, and to maximize the intelligence that resides in your organization, your culture has to be healthy. Your culture has to facilitate dynamic teamwork, high morale, low turnover, productivity, and minimal politics.

Nothing impacts organizational health like the health of the people who drive the organization.

In many ways, Smart = the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Healthy = the Emotional Quotient (EQ). We could look at the Enron disaster to see that a calculating, manipulative, self-serving group of Harvard MBA’s are not the answer to organizational success.

Creating a healthy, people-centric environment with a long-term focus

So how can a leader create a healthy organization that drives maximum engagement and results?

First, surround talented people with other talented people. Most people want to contribute at a level that matches their talents and ability; the best people want to contribute at a level that exceeds talent and ability. People don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “I want to do a really poor job today.” If we can create an environment in which they will thrive, they will be engaged.

Many leaders believe that their greatest competitive advantage is their product or service line, or perhaps their pricing. While these are important, they don’t measure up to the importance of a healthy work environment.

Moreover, while technologies will continue to automate, speed up, simplify, and streamline how we receive, process, and transmit information, the key to business in the next 20 years is still people. People will always be the heart of every business.

This is why the ability to manage people will continue to be the single most important skill of a leadership team. Unfortunately, this requirement continues to get more difficult. We have the perfect storm brewing that greatly diminishes our ability to understand, manage, and lead people:

1: People (leaders and employees) are bringing more dysfunctionality than ever before to the work place. It’s impossible to delineate the home life environment from the work environment. The habits and stress that manifest at home seep into the workplace. This poses a challenging management and leadership scenario.

2: Technology has complicated communications. Texting, email, voicemail, and social media have replaced traditional communications. So much is lost or misinterpreted when human engagement falls by the wayside. This too creates complex management & leadership challenges.

Another challenge to creating an environment that results in an highly engaged workforce is that employees may often focus on short-term satisfaction, rathern than long-term happiness.  

One of the most difficult things to do is to think and live strategically. Great leaders naturally do this. They can look beyond the struggle of today to see a successful tomorrow. They embrace the idea that there will be a lot of struggle, pain, and withholding to achieve a long-term goal.

Employees on the other hand may not naturally think of their jobs (or their lives) in these terms.

Three questions to ask ourselves to achieve happiness and engagement

What do I want?
Do you want pleasure or happiness?

It’s human nature to do things that make us happy, We act out of a desire for happiness. However, people often confuse the ideas of happiness and pleasure.

Pleasure can not be sustained beyond the activity producing it.

Happiness can be sustained beyond the activity producing it.

The key to true happiness is to delay gratification. We must delay pleasure that the present may bring us for a bigger future which will bring happiness.

To build a sustainable company, business owners must live in the happiness principle. They must think long-term.

Employees often live in the pleasure principle. They are focused on short-term sacrifices… getting a proposal finished, or a project completed. Getting to the point in the calendar when they are taking time off. Their perspectives are not long-term focused.

How a person views their work environment – and the work they contribute – determines where they fall on the engagement scale.

What makes me the best version of yourself?
Are you doing everything possible to build the best version of yourself? Are you nurturing yourself physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally? Are you fully engaged with the life around you?

Imagine employees asking: what can I do today to make this company the best version of itself?

Are they thinking about this for their own lives? How can they possibly think about creating the best version of your company if they haven’t figured out yet how to create the best version of themselves? Employees have to do this for themselves first before they do this for their company.

How can I get more energy?
Energy is the great differentiator. “Your capacity and ability to experience life is in direct proportion to the amount of energy you have,” said Kelly. “Fatigue turns us into cowards.”

Lack of energy shows up daily in our organizations. Employees who lack energy are disengaged. They don’t give 100 percent and therefore don’t produce results that are 100 percent. Leaders who lack energy also lack “managerial courage.” It takes a lot of energy and effort to manage well. Managers who are highly engaged and committed to creating a healthy environment perform three critical tasks with their teams:

  1. They make expectations clear to their team. They convey expected action and outcome with clarity.
  2. They make inspections. Engaged managers will discover the gap between what they expect and what is actually delivered or occurring.
  3. They make corrections. They take action based on the gaps to improve the organization.

Why is there a lack of managerial courage in many organizations? “People are tired,” says Kelly. “It takes a lot of energy to convey what you expect and inspect on a regular basis. It also takes most energy to coach and close the gap.”

In life, we judge every experience by the energy of their environment. From restaurants and stores to churches and sporting venues, we are immediately affected by the energy of the environment.

People are naturally drawn to others that have high energy and positive energy. We put barriers between ourselves and those that throw off negative energy.

Energy is contagious.

Keeping employees highly engaged through transition

How do we infuse energy into our organizations – especially those that are experiencing great change? At today’s pace of business, change is pervasive in every company, and that change can be draining, depleting, and demotivating. People want the wheel of change to just stop for a while, and settle down.

Employees need to realize that the change and pace is not going to subside. It’s the responsibility of the leader to communicate this, and lead people through transition in a manner that causes the least amount of disruption. 

“People love change but they don’t like transition,” said Kelly. “But life is transition. Work, home… everything is always in a state of transition. The most successful people are those hungry for the transition. Not just tolerant, but hungry.” They look for the transitions – such is the case of Apple. Those that resist transition the most are the least engaged in life, and the least satisfied.

In organizations, Kelly noted that employees don’t expect their leaders to fix the transitions that are coming, but they do expect them to communicate them. “Good business leaders talk about the challenges and opportunities during the transition – not just about the future.”

“If you send people into “krazytime” – the time that occurs between the present and the future – you have to tell them about it,” said Kelly.  It is always krazytime between the current state and the future state. This is what it means to be In Transition.

Personal dreams and employee engagement
Building a great business is undoubtedly one of the dreams of a business owner, but what about the dreams of the organization’s employees? There’s a correlation between the success of a business and the personal dreams of those that work there.

“People come to work because they have dreams for themselves and their families,” said Kelly. “They hitch their wagon to your company. When they don’t think your company can get them there, they disengage.

“Dreams are contagious. The biggest mistake of an entrepreneur is to keep their dreams a secret because people want to naturally help others live their dreams.”

 Do you know the dreams of the people around you? Employees, Kelly said, are not working for you. They are working for their dreams.

Employee engagement rises and falls on their dreams. An employee’s belief that the company can somehow, in some measure contribute to the fulfillment of their dreams, keeps them emotionally connected  to the company.

As the leader, it’s essential that your personal dreams remain tied to your organization. Leaders must ask themselves, “What will allow me to thrive in the midst of the push push push model? What can I do physically, mentally, spiritually every day to get me through the push push push?”

Great leaders ask these questions not only of themselves, but of their employees.

How engaged are you in your life, your business, your leadership?

Dream big.

Engage deeply.

Choose long-term happiness over short-term pleasure.

Embrace the transitions.

Believe in your power to create a future that is bigger than your past.  

Don’t let the things you can’t do get in the way of the things you can do.




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