Accelerating Team Engagement

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In a business world that is increasingly distributed and virtual, team engagement has never been more important. The coronavirus crisis has led to more remote working than previously ever imagined. What can leaders do to drive deep, engagement? How can they sustain this with the teams they lead and influence? Here’s what I learned from studying some of the best leaders I worked with over the last 22 years:

1. Build Relational Proximity

Years ago, I worked with an organization that valued engagement, differently. You were expected to be in the office at 8 a.m. and also continue to be seen around 10 p.m. Your power, equity, and value came from face-time. The more you were seen, the more you were valued. However, this didn’t always translate to great team engagement or significantly higher performance.  Instead, it created an environment where team members had to watch their backs, all the time.  

On the contrary, I observed a key differentiator that seemed to separate teams from good vs. great. Regardless of whether they were co-located or distributed, they seemed more engaged and better performing. And the secret seemed to lie in the leader’s ability to build Relational Proximity. KPMG defined this concept as “…the measure of distance in the relationship between two people, groups, or organizations…”

My first, few bosses at Cisco were in Sydney, Singapore, and the United States. I didn’t have the luxury of walking down the hallway or sharing a meal with them. We couldn’t spontaneously brainstorm. But our conversations were frequent, rich, and transparent. Our teams never once worried about the implications of difficult conversations. Because they were never afraid to highlight the emerging truth that needed to be spoken. These leaders were willing to do the hard work of truly getting to know their teams. I never doubted their intent. Even thousands of miles away, I felt close enough to trust. Geographical distance never came in the way of engagement or performance. In fact, these leaders inspired the highest levels of discretionary effort from their teams.

2. Leverage Collaboration Technologies

To amplify relational proximity, successful leaders leverage collaboration platforms in meaningful ways. Video for team meetings, live streaming, vlogs, and staff meetings is a far more preferred medium today than it was before the pandemic hit us. Connecting across platforms makes leaders more accessible and available. It humanizes relationships and reduces the distance in unimaginable ways. A 2014 Cisco Connected World Technology Report shows that:

  • A majority of professionals use 2 to 3 work and personal devices in their daily lives.
  • If forced to choose a device for work and personal use, only 40% would choose a laptop.
  • 92% indicated they have less than 20 work-related apps

This reveals device usage and application preferences of Gen-X and Y professionals. And let’s not forget that this is a 2014 report! It doesn’t take into consideration Gen-Z’s love for visually engaging platforms or ability to seamlessly switch among several devices at a time.

So the verdict is clear. While it doesn’t mean a leader has to relentlessly hound a team on every possible platform (!), it does invite leaders to understand preferences and usage so you can inspire engagement and connect with deep authenticity.

3. Alignment of who you are: offline, online, and in-person 

Nothing says more about a person than this alignment. Especially if you’re a leader. You may have the most impressive, LinkedIn profile, but how do you show up in person? How do your social and professional networks experience you? You may be eloquent and charismatic in person but who are you in the digital world? How do you communicate in virtual team spaces or internal blogs? What do your Facebook posts, Twitter feed, and Instagram photos reveal about you?

Your digital presence does a lot to your brand. And informs how your who self is in alignment with the different roles you play every day. When you’re secure, whole, and comfortable in who you are, congruence is a natural outcome, not a life-long struggle.

4. Trust, but verify

In December 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the INF Treaty which required both countries to permanently give up an entire class of nuclear weapons At the time, US President Ronald Reagan emphasized the importance of the treaty and how it transcended numbers. In holding each other accountable, he also famously said that he would rely on the wisdom of the Russian maxim, “”doveryai no proveryai” which means: Trust, but verify.  A laughing (but seemingly annoyed) Soviet Union leader, Mikhail Gorbachev had responded with: “You say that in every meeting!”

As Barton Swaim explains in this article,  the maxim was a rhetoric tool used by the president to accomplish a diplomatic and political aim. He also discusses how this is not a politically, trustworthy phrase. If you trust, you wouldn’t need verification. And if you insist on verification, you don’t really trust. This approach will most likely diminish trust in any team and especially, distributed and virtual teams. So how can leaders convert this greatest currency of trust into real-world value? How can you trust your teams to bring their best?

5. Activate the Brain’s Reward Network

Before I address that question, I found compelling insights in this Forbes article, about trust and team engagement. Forbes Leadership Blogger and Culture Coach Christine Comaford emphasizes the importance of the brain’s Reward Network and why leaders to stay out of the Pain Network. She says the pain network gets activated when we feel:

  • physical pain (lack of safety)
  • social exclusion (no belonging)
  • bereavement (loss)
  • betrayal (unfair treatment)
  • negative social comparison (no mattering)

The reward network is activated when we feel:

  • physical pleasure (safety)
  • cooperative (belonging)
  • having a good reputation (mattering)
  • being treated fairly (trust)
  • giving to charity (safety plus = abundance)

When team members matter, have a sense of belonging, and trust that they will be treated fairly, engagement grows. So trust and confirm that expectations are clear. Both from your viewpoint and that of your team members. Ensure there are no barriers coming in the way of progress and engagement. Check-in frequently to build long-term relationships and engagement. Empower and increase stakes and authority to make decisions.

The greatest lesson to remember is that organizational design may have brought your team members together but your leadership will influence them in winning together. And that is determined by how they experience one another, together.

*This blog was first published in August 2017 and has since been updated. 

Anitha Aswath is the Founder of Anitha Aswath Consulting Group. She is an Executive and StandOut Strengths Coach, Consultant, and Global Facilitator. She has the unique privilege of meeting clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable greater success for themselves and their teams. 


2 thoughts on “Accelerating Team Engagement”

  1. Yes Anitha. Leader must not betray his team members or ignore their hard work. Only then he can take every body along with him and be a successful leader.

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