Generating Employee Engagement in More Meaningful Ways (Builds Teams)


I don’t enjoy going to Disney World. There, I said it. Please don’t tell my kids, but it is one of my least favorite places to spend a vacation. The whole “happiest-place-on-earth” spiel just feels so contrived. It’s like I’m being pressured to have a good time. Before I’m confronted with a Mickey-eared protest, please know that amusement parks are not the only place where I feel this way. Every day in workplaces around the world, leaders aspire to make their workplaces the most “engaged-place-on-earth” by manufacturing “fun” initiatives for their employees.

How do staff feel when we have social events aimed at strengthening their relationships with co-workers? We order a few pizzas, shove everyone into the breakroom, and compel them to connect in an “informal” environment. The employer’s intent is that these miraculously deepening associations can be exploited to yield greater organizational engagement. The reality is that after being thrown into this awkward social experiment, those who like each other will huddle into small groups while everyone else aimlessly walks around with a lost look as they search (beg even) to be acknowledged.

In addition to making the outsiders feel even more like outsiders, these events rarely improve engagement. The disengaged co-workers cluster to feed off each other’s negativity, while the engaged want to get back to the work that makes them feel engaged in the first place. What’s really needed are true engagement building activities.

Marvin Shaw, a leading expert on group dynamics, once said that all groups have one thing in common—their members interact. I would add that they need to interact in meaningful ways. It’s great that the department can unite around the same football team or America’s Got Talent contestant, but how does this help the organization? Sure, it’s nice to have some downtime where we can unwind and talk about our non-work interests; however, when there’s work to be done, are these casual conversations really the solution to fostering productive working relationships?

From a leadership perspective, the importance of strong group dynamics does not lie in whether people like each other. It’s nice, but not crucial. The reason leaders need to create a culture of engagement is that work groups are the best way for us to coordinate individuals’ behavior towards achieving a common goal. Without these work groups, it’s every person for themself. There would be no collaboration, no diversity of viewpoints, and no cross-departmental projects.

A solid team challenges its members to work harder and smarter. They thrive off each other’s energy to enhance creativity and inspiration. They hold each other accountable to meet deadlines and pull their weight. Ultimately, through this roller coaster, the team ends up with a better product and, in doing so, creates a bond that is more withstanding than two people who like to watch the same TV show.

Too often, when leaders are trying to improve their team’s engagement, the first response is an employee of the month program, hanging a bulletin board with fun facts about the teammates, or holding a “thank you” barbeque. I’m not one to turn down a plate of ribs, but this is low hanging fruit that never really improves engagement. If I wasn’t engaged before the free lunch, I’m not going to be engaged after it.

If we are going to stop relying on the monthly birthday cake to create a more engaged team, how can leaders start creating opportunities that encourage meaningful relationships in our workplace? Here are few ideas:

Elite culture

I once witnessed an applicant hand her application to the hiring manager in the lobby. He asked her two or three questions and offered her a job that started the next day. If it’s too easy to join your organization, there’s nothing special about being there. Engaging your team starts with the hiring process. Involve a bunch of people. This provides a more well-rounded view of the applicants and gives those interviewing a sense of ownership as to who will be joining their team. It’s harder to be unengaged in your workplace when you helped chose your co-workers.

Mentor program

Most employees begin a new job feeling engaged. They are excited for the opportunity and want to make a great impression. They show up willing to do anything we ask them to do, yet, more often than not, their supervisor is too busy to train them so they receive minimal instruction and are sent out to drift on their own with little guidance. And who comes along to accept them – the disengaged posse. This disgruntled clique knows all the shortcuts and their united front against management feels like acceptance. You’re A-players would love to help the newbies but they are too busy working. So, in the absence of positive role models, the B and C players fill the void.

To harness the greatness of your high performers and avoid squandering the potential of your future high potentials, new hires need to be paired up with optimal co-workers. This is more than introducing them to each other. They need to be united through a formal mentor program. Spell out the expectations of the program from the beginning. The mentor needs to understand the purpose of the program, receive the checklist of topics to cover, and be able to discuss the culture of the organization.

Project teams

Instead of forcing empty conversations, why not give people a real reason to talk? Putting people on a project team allows them to interact through substantive interactions. There’s a stated purpose and a general framework to guide participants. Everyone involved has an invested interest and a reason to share. It provides an avenue for the socially introverted to express themselves and presses the extroverted to allow others a chance to speak. Once the solution is enacted, there is a feeling of shared accomplishment that unites those involved. For the individuals involved, this results in greater engagement and team camaraderie. For the organization, issues are being resolved.

Common enemy

Nothing bonds people faster than an eminent threat. Whether it’s a competitor, a tight deadline, or a chance to win, teams connect faster when there’s a sense of “us versus them”. I’ve seen teams go as big as uniting behind an effort to improve the perception of not just their company, but their industry. I’ve seen them go so low as to hang a picture of a competing CEO on a dartboard (this was a company-wide Christmas gift that was quickly taken down). Either way, the team has a reason to fight together, work together, and succeed together.

Higher purpose

As effective as a shared enemy may be, it’s important that there’s also a shared vision. If you have a fancy vision statement that hangs in the office, ask yourself whether it’s really something you and your team aspire to achieve. If it’s not, if people don’t know it, if it was created by the public relations department as part of your rebranding, consider whether it’s time for a new vision, one that truly states the purpose and goals of the organization.

Model fun

Part of building a culture where meaningful relationships are forged is based in the behaviors of the leaders. If management cannot loosen up to have real conversations, staff will act the same way. There’s a place for levity in the workplace. There’s also a place for authenticity, sincerity, being personable, and showing the real you. Leaders must exemplify these traits if the connections are truly intended to be earnest.

Building engagement is not difficult. It does not need to entail frivolous activities that take up work time and don’t pay off in the end. If you want people to care about work and the workplace, give them assignments that matter. Make interactions with co-workers a necessary part of the job instead of a break from being productive. And, most of all, don’t try to force people to have fun. If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen on it’s own…not because you said so.

David Kahn, PhD is an Organizational Psychologist focused on delivering business solutions that link culture and engagement with the business goals of the organization. Check out his latest book, "Case, Spandex, Briefcase: Leadership Lessons from Superheroes" and read more of his work on