Engage people by showing how their work contributes

2009

Day after day, Rick works hard. He likes his work, he's paid well, and he gets along with his coworkers. But Rick is considering looking for work elsewhere.

Why? Because Rick doesn't have a clue about what direction his company's goals or where they are heading.

Practically everyone where Rick works is kept in the dark about the company's goals. Whenever Rick asks his boss about it he's routinely waived off. As a result, his commitment is starting to wear thin.

Rick wants what most workers want. That is to understand how his work contributes to the big picture.

A school teacher I know, whom we'll call Jerri, hears about the big picture on a regular basis. Jerri teaches junior high school math, and she feels totally plugged into what's going on at her school and how her work factors in.

The reason? Her principal makes it a practice to talk with teachers informally throughout the week. Sometimes it's in the hallway whiles students are arriving for school. Other times it's a chat in the cafeteria during lunch, or maybe near the end of the day after the students have gone home.

The point is that both her principal and the vice principal make the effort to touch base with the staff and faculty several times a week and keep them informed about the school's focus, direction, and goals. The result? People feel included. They feel "in the loop" and connected to what's going on.

Jerri's principal is someone I would consider to be a pro at holding effective water cooler conversations.

What is a water cooler conversation?
Water cooler conversations get their name because of how people gather informally around a water cooler to discuss topics of interest. Sometimes the conversations are nothing but small talk, but sometimes they're about things that matter.

When we, as managers and team leaders, strive to build passion-driven teams, water cooler conversations are powerful for keeping people connected.

When people on passion-driven teams have water cooler conversations, it's a time to share learning, communicate faith in one another, give feedback on various projects, or even reconnect with the big picture of what they're trying to accomplish.

The big picture is vital. On passion-driven teams, people enthusiastically subscribe to their team's purpose, and everyone is well aware of how their work ties to the organization's vision, mission, and values.

This should tell you why passion-driven teams are rather rare. Too many team leaders (and many organizations in general) do a horrible job of sharing the big picture with their employees.

Why the big picture is a no show
Unfortunately, the problem of not communicating the big picture is more universal than one might think. Research from KEYGroup, an executive coaching company, found that nearly half of all employees do not have clearly defined goals, nor do they receive feedback on their performance more than once a week.

Other research indicates the problem is even worse. Robert Kaplan and David Norton, authors of Execution Premium: Linking Strategy to Operations for Competitive Advantage, found that "A mere 7% of employees today fully understand their company's business strategies and what's expected of them in order to help achieve company goals."

Clearly, people need to be brought into the loop on the direction of their company or that company will have a tough time developing passion on its teams. It ought to be common sense: When employees understand the goals of their company and how their actions align with those goals, those employees are more productive—and their company is more profitable.

Conversely, nature abhors a vacuum. When no clear goals exist, or when they're not publicized so that people can subscribe to them and/or promote them, individual missions and visions tend to rise up in competition. In other words, people start promoting their own agendas. The result is unnecessary conflict, delays, and lost revenue. Personal agendas and turf wars consume valuable time and energy.

Keep it simple
A colleague of mine says that great water cooler conversations often start with the simple phrase "oh, by the way . . ." He tells the story of a quality control manager in a large company that kept a bowl of candy in her office. Everyone knew about the bowl of candy, and everyone - from the janitorial staff to the highest executives - would routinely stop in to get something sweet to eat.

The manager used those opportunities to engage people in conversation. A casual "oh, by the way" opened many conversations that kept people informed about what was going on, which kept them engaged and enthusiastic about their work.

Bottom line: Engage people's desire to contribute by showing them how their work is part of a bigger picture.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

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Hi Dan,

I agree that including folks, consciously, by indicating how they fit into the big picture is an effective method to generate engagement. Another that, in my experience, gets folks involved in a consistent way is by asking, honestly and sincerely, 'What do you think?'

peter vajda Atlanta, GA

I work for an exemplary employer where every memeber of our executive team routinely shares information about our company goals, objectives and how much the efforts of everyone are appreciated and contribute to our success. This article just gives me a greater appreciation of the way our company president and other members of management openly communicate with everyone how we're doing and where we're going.

Cynthia T.