Improving Engagement: Do Workers Know the Game You Want Them to Play?

One of the biggest frustrations I’ve heard from managers — both middle and senior level executives — is how few employees seem to care about how they, the employee, can help their employer. To them, their employees seem more excited about the upcoming weekend, than they do about making a contribution.

In short, their employees act more like “hired hands” than real “players.”

While there are many reasons for such lack of interest, if you experience this problem with your employees, one significant source to examine is this:

“Do your employees know what game they’re supposed to be playing and how it’s played?”

It’s not all cricket

I had an epiphany back in 1996 about why so many employees seem disconnected and disinterested. The head of an Australian organization who invited me to speak at his conference, asked me during my trip if I would like to watch a cricket match with him at his home.

Sure, sounds great, I said. When in Rome…

Before the match began, he informed me that this match was part of the World Cup — i.e. it was a big deal. He then explained briefly the goal of the game and the basic rules of engagement.

For the next several hours, he sat mesmerized, spellbound by the drama.

Meanwhile, I struggled to remain conscious. I was completely unmoved and uninspired by this “big” event.

Despite his brief overview, nothing the cricket players did, made sense to me. I understood they were trying to hit the ball, but other than that, the game was a blur of meaningless movement. If there was a strategy involved, it remained a mystery to my uneducated eyes.

He, on the other hand, was fully engaged in the drama that was unfolding — a drama that escaped me — because he understand the ins and outs of the game and could appreciate the strategy, the athleticism, and whatever else makes cricket fascinating to cricket lovers.

“Ahh … This is how many employees feel”

Just before drifting off into unconsciousness, I found myself thinking how this odd experience could be a metaphor for an all-too-common workplace phenomenon.

This is just like what happens so often in the workplace, I thought. The business owner or leadership team understands “the game,” and because of that, they find it riveting. They’re motivated, inspired, passionate.

They know their strategy, they know what’s going on in the marketplace, they know how they’re trying to differentiate themselves from their competition. Because they understand the big picture, the rules of engagement, how all the pieces fit together — and get to use their brains to decide how the game will be played — they feel fully engaged and excited about this “great game of business” as Jack Stack called it.

“Just wondering: What game are we playing?”

However, the average person in the trenches does not know what game they are supposed to be playing or how to play it.

In a survey of employees, conducted by Leadership IQ, only 34 percent of employees said they could articulate their employer’s strategic goals . Even worse, when asked to explain their understanding of those goals, only 51 percent of the people who said they could, were able to do so.

Thus, only about one out of six employees actually knew what their employer was trying to achieve. Only one out of six knew what game they were supposed to be playing and how the game was played.

If you can’t relate to the cricket story, think of times you’ve had a friend tell you about some esoteric interest of theirs with full throttle excitement, and how less-than-eager you were to listen. Although you were glad they were “into” it, you certainly were not on your way to becoming a convert.

Because you knew little to nothing about their esoteric interest, and it did not make sense to you, you couldn’t share their excitement.

So tell them about it

That is how most of your employees feel about your organization, unless you are one of the rare employers who does a good job communicating:

  1.  Your mission and vision in non-BusinessSpeak terms;
  2.  Your strategic goals;
  3. Key initiatives;
  4. What other departments or divisions are doing;
  5. Current marketplace realities and how your marketplace works;
  6. Business financials and how their work impacts these;
  7. How their job contributes to the big picture; and,
  8. How specifically they can maximize their contribution.

The difference this can make

Todd Hudson, founder of the Maverick Institute tells a great story of how he discovered the power of explaining to employees what game they’re playing, and how their performance helps their employer “win the game.”

Years ago, he came onboard as a manager at a silicon wafer fabrication plant. Silicon wafers are a key component of computer chips and integrated circuits. The team he inherited had process yields of 83 percent.

Soon after starting, the company got dinged with a quality return by an important customer; the issue was site flatness, a critical quality characteristic. When Todd talked with his operator team about this problem, one person asked: “What’s a site? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

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Heads starting nodding; others too had no idea what “site flatness” was.

That’s when it hit him “My employees don’t know anything about our product, how it’s used, and what the customers care about. Believe it or not, they had been working for years not knowing what those ‘right things’ were.”

As he set about teaching these things, operators started making smarter decisions: “They started realizing that ‘If cleanliness is important, I shouldn’t be wiping down equipment with a greasy rag.’”

“Once they understood , they were happy to do the right thing and, even better, think of improvements,” Hudson noted.

Which inspires better performance?

Once his employees understood the rules of the game, they started paying attention to what mattered, and performing in ways that contributed to their employer’s strategic goals.

Now that employees got it that “the goal isn’t to just move wafers from machine A to machine B, it’s to make these super, super flats wafers that a customer like Intel is going to use to make the next generation chip” their performance sky rocketed.

Their performance level went from “Weekend Warrior” to “World Cup.” More specifically, their yields went from 83 percent  — i.e. 17 out of every wafer having to be returned or scrapped — to 99.7 percent — i.e. only  three out of 10,000 wafers being defective.

While Todd Hudson did more than explain the picture to generate this kind of turn around (more on that in a future article), doing so laid the foundation for the others.

So, what now?

1. Share this story with your employees and fellow managers.

2. Ask your employees how “in the loop” they feel.

3. Ask them to articulate your Mission, Vision, and Strategic Goal

4. Ask them to identify their Key Result Areas — how they provide the most value and maximally contribute to your Strategic Goals.

5. Find out what information they feel they are lacking and what they want to know more about. You can use the aforementioned list to facilitate this conversation:

    • Your mission and vision in non-BusinessSpeak terms;
    • Your strategic goals;
    • Key initiatives:
    • What other departments or divisions are doing;
    • Current marketplace realities and how your marketplace works;
    • Business financials and how their work impacts these;
    • How their job contributes to the big picture;
    • How specifically they can maximize their contribution.

6. Collect and continually share stories that illustrate and dramatize:

    • What your organization is striving to achieve and why;
    • The difference your organization makes; the value you provide;
    • The challenges you face and how you are overcoming them;
    • Employee contributions;

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," and Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker, volume one of the Courageous Conversations at Work series, as well over 100 articles and book chapters.

You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at