Workforce Engagement Strategies of High Impact Teams

Two broad assumptions form the foundation for modern workforce engagement strategies. First, workforce engagement is the responsibility of every employee. They should come to work excited to give their best. If they don’t, remediation is required. The second assumption is that workforce engagement is the leader’s responsibility, and it is up to her to design and execute the strategy. For example, people are hired for their professional and technical skills. However, it is the leader’s responsibility to capture the other parts of the workforce, their creativity, passion for innovation, transformation, and problem-solving. This article will focus on the second assumption that workforce engagement is the responsibility of leadership.

The Story of Brian – Leadership as a “Relational Enterprise”

Brian is a brilliant Civil Engineer working for one of the world’s largest engineering firms. His story is very similar to many first-time leaders. Over ten years with the firm he steadily proved himself an outstanding engineer. His client work was excellent. Consequently, the firm rewarded him with additional responsibilities. Eventually, he was managing multiple projects based on his superior technical skills. However, a day came when he assigned a clear leadership role. He was put in charge of multiple geographically diverse teams, in various customer segments, with different skill sets than his own. He had just leaped from being a manager to being a leader.

His training as a leader

His firm, like so many, did nothing to invest in Brian’s success. Even though he was recognized as an emerging leader of an international engineering firm with billions in annual revenues, learning to lead was left up to him. It was the equivalent of handing him the keys to a sailboat with instructions to sail around the world. Unfortunately, education in how to sail, navigate, repair the boat, and communicate with the outside world in a howling gale was up to him. Metaphorically, his firm said, “good luck, we hope you make it back home safely.”

Brian’s Response

Strategic Employee Engagement

Fortunately for Brian, he is a system thinker. So, he applied this discipline to his leadership. Except instead of designing a system to treat waste water, he created a system of leadership. His research led him to the conclusion that leadership is fundamentally a “relational enterprise.” Therefore, his leadership must produce relationships. As his system grew, he recognized that relationships included his staff’s relationship with himself and his team’s relationship with each other.

Measuring his leadership by Measuring Engagement Levels of His Team

Brian also recognized that he needed a way of measuring his leadership. He needed to know if his leadership was producing relationships with and among his staff. So he asked for his HR department’s help and came up with a 360 evaluation of his leadership. The results? His team is creating so much customer value that he cannot hire engineers fast enough to meet their clients’ demands.

Lessons about Workforce Engagement Strategies

1. Make workforce engagement a strategy aligned with the broader business strategy

Brian’s story illustrates the idea that workforce engagement can become a strategic competitive advantage. By strategically creating a high engagement team, they were delivering customer value at a rate where they could not keep up with demand. While some will understand workforce engagement as a simply tool to get more production out of a workforce, high impact teams recognize the opportunity to strategically create a competitive advantage.

2. Design the employee experience.

Research points to many factors contribute to a highly engaged workforce. These factors include:
a. A noble organizational mission.
b. A sense of psychological safety.
c. The opportunities to collaborate and innovate.

However, according to a recent report published in the MIT Sloan Management Review titled, A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company, the authors state, “the level and quality of interpersonal collaboration actually has the greatest impact on employee engagement.” However, by determining that his leadership had to produce relationships, he was also identifying his workforce’s experience. They could expect to experience relationships. Both with Brian as well as with each other.

However, according to a recent report published in the MIT Sloan Management Review titled, A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company, the authors state, “the level and quality of interpersonal collaboration actually has the greatest impact on employee engagement.”  However, by determining that his leadership had to produce relationships, he was also identifying his workforce’s experience. They could expect to experience relationships. Both with Brian as well as with each other.

3. Recognize the Value of the Whole Person

Brian realized that his workforce was more than just a collection of professional and technical robots. He understood them to be human beings. Each one was worthy of respect by the simple fact that they are human beings. So, building relationships meant that he was building a relationship with the whole humanness of his workforce. As he said to me, “my first step was to get to know them as…people.

4. Know the interests and passions of your workforce

I was speaking with an elementary school principal one morning. This school had experienced a massive transformation in the academic achievement of its students. In just five years, the school went from failing to the highest performing elementary school out of eighteen schools. Like Brian, this principal understood that she needed to know her staff, not just as teachers, administrators, counselors, nurses, and custodians. She needed to know their passions. In this way, she could set up mentoring relationships between a teacher passionate about math with a teacher who was passionate about English grammar. In this way, her staff could collaborate around what they were passionate about

5. Develop the Whole Person

High impact organizations recognize that their workforce engagement strategies must include the development of the whole person. Millennials and the following generation has made it clear, and they are not interested in being lead or becoming followers of anyone. However, they are passionate about personal and professional development. They want to maximize the value of their lives, both professionally and personally. When I confirmed this observation with the school principal referenced above, her response was, “of course, why would I want half a teacher walking in my door?” I think the same could be said of a software developer, a hospital administrator, a nurse, or manufacturing working assembling cars.

In the same way, healthcare, manufacturing, and the U.S. Military understand that if they can develop their employees into stronger, more self-confident, and empowered human beings, they create a bolder, courageous and dynamic workforce.

6. Reward Risk

An employer cannot force or demand more engagement that was is required. An employee must do their job and only apply as much passion as the job requires, no more or no less. However, leaders can be like farmers. They can till the soil, prepare the soil, fertilize the soil, and use the best seed they can afford. But they cannot make the corn grow. They can only provide the best conditions for their crop to flourish.

Similarly, a leader cannot force engagement, but she can create an environment, for engagement to grow. One of the ingredients of a successful workforce engagement strategy is to reward risk. For example, in my book’s research, Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance, I found a manufacturing firm with 200 employees. They have adopted Kaizen and the Toyota Production System for both their manufacturing and management system. They have created a culture of high employee engagement to find and eliminate risk. Central to this strategy is to reward any employee with Personal Time Off (PTO) for conducting a kaizen. It does not matter if it is for the company or even for their personal benefit. They reward their team for seeing an opportunity and taking the risk to see if it works.

Workforce Engagement Strategies and Leadership

Brian’s company is a firm with 19,000 employees. He is one of 300 emerging leaders. Therefore, 300 emerging leaders are fumbling through a chaotic process of becoming leaders. The good news is that Brian is smart enough to figure out his own system of leadership. The company’s bad news is that there are 299 other emerging leaders trying to figure it out. Some will do well because of natural gifts and talent. Some will drown in the process, and others will figure it out by expensive trial and error.

Designed Workforce Engagement Strategies Are Not Difficult

But what would happen to this firm if they trained all 300 leaders to a system designed to produce relationships? Of course, some people are just naturally gifted relationship builders. However, first-time leaders can learn everything Brian did. For example, when Brian determined that he needed to build relationships with his team, he began by simple conversation. When his staff came to him with problems, he would first ask a few questions about themselves. Then he learned that he could do the same at their workstations. It was his version of a genba. Similarly, when he took out cubicle dividers in favor of an open office, it was not because of the latest design trends. He did it because he wanted to open the office for greater relationship building and collaboration.

Two Examples From Healthcare

A Level 1 Trauma Center

During an interview, the Chief Medical Officer of a level 1 trauma center told me about his experience with two hospital CEOs. One seldom got out of her office, and most communication was via email. Engagement with the staff was low because no one knew who she was. However, when another CEO replaced her, he immediately moved his office from the penthouse executive suite to the first floor, where he could observe the hospital’s rhythms and pulse. He regularly made “rounds” to each department, including the Trauma Center. Consequently, he established relationships as names turned into faces. The staff learned they could trust the new CEO. Engagement levels soared.

A Large Integrated Healthcare System

Similarly, another hospital CEO took this rounding idea to another level and made it a requirement of an entire system of leadership. Rounding by his leaders and managers became a daily requirement, and all other activities were secondary to this one activity. For those who found this personally difficult, the hospital provided coaches and mentors. A result, they ranked in the 96th percentile for workforce engagement and Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 Companies to Work For three straight years.


The individual worker is rewarded if they consistently demonstrate high levels of engagement. Conversely, design remediation activities if they don’t. Conversely, high impact teams are taking a different route. They understand that the determining factor in workforce engagement is the relationships with the team. In response, they place the responsibility of engagement on the shoulders of their leadership. They then design and train every leader and manager to the requirements of a leadership system that will lay a solid foundation for the workforce to engage with their work fully – intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally.

About the Author

Daniel Edds, MBA is the author of Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance. This is the first book of its kind that describes in simple and easy to understand case studies and stories how high impact organizations are recreating the world of work and leadership.

For fuller discussion of this topic we have a complimentary copy of a Special Report, Workforce Engagement Strategies, and Steps available in our resource page.