Waiting For Engagement: When to Debate and When to Just Get it Done

Getting employees to buy in to a new initiative can be a bit challenge for any manager or HR professional. (Photo by Dreamstime).

I have been writing a lot recently about the work I do in helping companies identify and deal with execution risks.

One of the biggest issues companies are facing today is that people are simply not in the game. They are keeping their heads down, waiting for the rest of the shoes to drop, and for the dust to clear.

So people are not engaging. Execution stalls.

What is more risky?

The interesting part about this, is that employees do this not because they are lazy, but because they think it is a safer, job-preserving tactic, than engaging with a new, risky initiative.

With so much change happening, they are afraid if they jump on board, visibly, they will become a target, when the next change happens. It’s safer to just lay low, and stay off the radar.

Frustrated leaders always ask me:

  • How do I get them to engage?
  • How can I get them to start working in the new way?
  • How can I get them leading, being a positive example for others?
  • How can I get them communicating more?
  • How can I get them to share their opinions?

First, a stable environment

As leaders, what we need to do is to help people understand that it is actually more risky to be invisible than it is to be engaged.

But first, you owe it to your team to create a stable environment. You need to remove uncertainty about what people should be working on. You need to not change your mind all the time, and not change the strategy every month. It’s not fair to expect them to engage in chaos.

As long as you do this you can encourage your people to step up.


Debate: One of the best ways I have done this is to make it clear that for every initiative, there is DEBATE time and there is GO time. During debate time, I make it clear that I want to hear people’s opinions. I want to hear the arguments. I want everyone to fight for their point of view.

Decision: After debate time is over, I make it clear who owns the decision, and the decision gets made.

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GO Time

Then I make it clear that we are in GO time. This is the time to engage in the work, not in the debate.

By setting this structure, you can make it clear that expected behavior is to not be invisible during debate time, and to not be invisible during go time. You want to hear opinions, and then you want to see active engagement on the decided course of action.

Invisible is not acceptable

Make it clear that being invisible in not acceptable in either phase, and is actually a riskier behavior than jumping in. You need to imply, if not outright communicate, if there were a need to do layoffs, it would be the invisible people who are not engaged who would be at most risk.

Make it feel real. People are more likely to participate in the GO phase if they have participated in the DEBATE phase. It’s not just that they have more ownership, which also helps. It’s that they have participated in the socialization of the idea.

It’s not just some fringe idea that is going to go by the wayside, so it’s not worth getting involved in – better to wait it out.

They get the feeling that this is a real thing, that everyone is involved with. SO it will be OK for me to. I don’t want to get left out.

This article was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .