When managers ask me what level of engagement they should aim for on their teams, my shoulders slump, and I feel an ache in my stomach. That question makes me believe that I’ve missed my mark, that I must not have communicated my thoughts well enough. After all, I’ve just spent an hour in a presentation espousing the merits of an engaged workforce and highlighting that if you address engagement, you address performance. I’ve touted how people, productivity, and profitability go hand in hand. How “humanize,” “optimize,” and “digitize” are three sisters making the journey to a healthy and fit business.
I rerun the question in my head. What people really mean when they ask that question, or any variation of it, is:
“How Many Engaged Employees Is Good Enough?”
Before I answer that, consider this: Imagine you’ve been planning your next vacation (post-pandemic, of course) for over a year. You’ve reviewed your bucket list and talked to all the people you trust for recommendations on the best vacation spots. You’ve finished your Tripadvisor searches and read all the reviews. You’ve settled on Machu Picchu.
You’ve mapped out the best routing, best hotels, and best days to take off. You’ve noted the restaurants everyone recommends, the top-rated guide to hire for the hike, and you’ve sorted out what you should pack. You’re all set. Now you just need to book your flights.
As you start to make your flight reservations, you see the track record of the airline that will be carrying you to your final destination, 7,972 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. The airline has an 85% safety record. Sometimes, the flight that takes off doesn’t land.
Well, it does land, just not in one piece. It crashes.
This is when I want to ask the manager who asks that question a similar question: “When it comes to safety and airlines, should every airplane land?”
The Ultimate Aim
Isn’t that the same scenario? We want every plane to land because if one doesn’t, that’s a 100% failure for every passenger on that one plane. Even if 99% of airplanes land without crashing, you still fail every person on the 1% that don’t.
If this doesn’t make you want to aim for 100%, what will?
Now think about this: We all know good news doesn’t sell. A newspaper filled with good news is less likely to get the attention of the masses than a paper filled with misery, doom, and gloom. All the bad news of the day — high unemployment, continued Covid deaths, an economic crisis in the making — attracts readers. We watch, we listen, and we lean into bad news.
The same is true at work.
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That one guy who’s unhappy with the 25% pay cut, which was introduced to save jobs during the pandemic, tells everyone about it. And everyone listens. People also listen to the woman who doesn’t like her boss and spins evidence to support it: “She’s always cutting me off! It’s her fault I didn’t get that sale!”
That one person, that one bad attitude, that one dark cloud consumes the airspace. It sucks the energy out of the room and brings everyone down. Suddenly, an entire team is on edge; they’re all talking about that one employee and that individual’s gripes. They lean into the negativity whether they like it or not. It’s human nature.
So now, I ask the manager who asked that question, “What percentage engagement would be good enough for you? How many people in your next meeting do you want to be all in and listening to your message?” Is it OK to have 5 out of 10 engaged? Six? Seven? What if you got to 80%? Only two of your attendees aren’t engaged. That would be great, right?
I don’t subscribe to targets like that, especially when we’re talking about the most critical asset in your business: your people. If you reached 80% engagement and said that’s good enough, you’ve let two people down. Two humans who go home every day feeling less than their best about work.
Worse still, you allow two people to bring their toxic energy to your team. Why would you stop at eight engaged team members when you can keep aiming for 10? If you aim for 100%, you get to continue thinking about the gap, how to close it, and how to better engage your people.
Ultimately, the ability to engage, enable, and energize the people on your team is the backbone of leadership. You must stretch yourself to find ways to engage your team each and every day. After all, if you want to be a great leader, you must first manage to engage.