LAST week this post alluded to a critical factor that’s necessary if you want employee engagement.  Today’s post is about that factor.

During my first “tour” as a manager in China (in 2000), I was often surprised by how bad the customer service was just about everywhere.  In department stores, for example, despite there being two staff for every customer, the multitudes of disinterested employees just milled around; unfocused, untrained, and absolutely disengaged.  If they had a purpose, they didn’t seem to know it, or care much about it.

Restaurants, banks, government offices – pretty much everywhere – the story was the same: loads of bored staff doing not much and adding very little value.


This is not the place to go into the deeper philosophical root causes of the problem, so I won’t.  What I want to discuss though, is the immediate cause of their listlessness, which, quite simply, was that they were not challenged.  They stood around most of the day with nothing to do, no standards were in place for them to live up to, and there were no consequences for poor performance.  Indeed, there was no criteria in place to even judge what was poor performance and what was good.

As mentioned in last week’s post, humans are born to engage with reality.  We all have the equipment to analyze and assess our environment and situation, and to do something about it.  We have what we need to create and obtain the values we need to survive and thrive.

If these values are handed to you on a platter, with no effort on your part, chances are you’ll be passive.  If you do not need to engage, to put yourself “in gear”, as it were, in order to get something, you won’t.  Simple as that.

Those department store staff in Shanghai got paid one way or the other, couldn’t really be fired, and were not so much as chastised for doing very little.  No one cared.

The flip-side of the lack of challenge for these employees was that by always “coasting”, they had no chance to learn, no opportunity to practice and become more competent, and no reason to feel proud of a good day’s work.  Talk about a vicious circle.  No challenge, no effort.  No effort, no growth.  No growth, no pride.  No pride, no care.  No care, no seeking challenge.

To engage as an individual, means to put yourself in gear.  To apply effort.

Engagement, in a group sense, is when everyone’s gears “mesh”, driving the group in one direction towards the common purpose.

Your job as a leader is to supply the cause, the challenge, the hill.  Without it, people just coast.

And if you want everyone pulling in time and up the same hill, don’t jam the works.  Set the “machine” in motion and then get out of the way.

Engagement is about getting people “in high gear”.

As long as we’re on the mechanical analogy, let me share one I like to use to explain the function of management.

If an organization is like a big heavy flywheel, management’s job is to get that wheel spinning.  In the beginning, that takes a lot of effort – delegation, training, performance management. Once it’s spinning though, that is, it’s functioning smoothly, management can be more hands-off; just keeping an eye on the wheel and giving it a spin now and then if it’s slowing down – giving a little direction, coaching, adjusting.

The key to getting an individual to engage, is to provide them a challenge.  The key to getting a team to engage together, is to make the challenge about achieving a common objective that they all care about, that they all have a vested interest in achieving.

The bottom line:  Challenge to Engage.