Employee Engagement Starts with You, Not Them

If leaders spent as much time refining and improving their personal game as they did pondering how to improve others, they’d inspire the team to create a massive wave of new achievement.  Engagement starts with you, not them.

The typical scenario goes like this:  a leader considers his or her team, both how they are good and how they are not yet great.  He or she thinks deeply about how to better engage the troops.  Opportunities are identified.  Skills are targeted.  Incentives are clarified (e.g., bonuses, promotions, desired staffing, other valued resources).  Effort is expended to affect them, to help shape them, to mold them.  This is not a poor plan of action.  It is, however, woefully incomplete.

If you are the leader and the goal is to increase employee engagement, the one truly essential variable to nail is your personal self-improvement.  This is one of the great truths of leadership:  leaders model the way.  Leaders set the tone in a very literal way.  Even if the team is great:  well-staffed, motivated, proper resources, etc., they still operate within parameters set by the leader.

This reality applies to the experience of positive emotions in general.  A group will not, on average, experience positive emotion in excess of those expressed by the leader.  The leader sets the pace.  This is hugely important given that positive emotions, a large part of employee engagement, are as close to a magic elixir for creating morale and productivity at work as has ever been discovered.

Leaders who become skilled at looking in the mirror effectively (through self-reflection, use of confidants, formal feedback mechanisms) become the type of honest positive strivers others wish to follow.  They model the way.


If you are the leader and the goal is to increase employee engagement, the one truly essential variable to nail is your personal self-improvement


I devised a very quick activity that can be used in a workshop or speaking capacity to clearly demonstrate this point.  Feel free to adopt a version for yourself.  I ask participants to close their eyes.  I tell them they can opt out anytime they wish.  For those still following my instructions, I then ask that they stand up with their eyes remaining closed.  A few folks opt out and open their eyes. For those remaining (typically a majority), I ask them – with their eyes remaining closed – to very carefully attempt to stand up on their chairs.  A few more opt out. Most stand still, feet firmly on the ground, motionless but for the movement of their heads as they try to “hear” what is happening around them.

Thankfully, a few crazies quickly jump up onto the chairs!  Once this happens, and only when this happens, do the majority who are standing then start to climb onto their chairs.  In an instant, the absurd (standing on your chair) became fun, something to be embraced.  Why? A few leaders modeled the way.  In the debrief I explain the impact of the few (leaders) modeling the way on the remainder of the participants.  It is a simple, fun activity with a monumentally important point that is conveyed in a fun physical manner that is difficult to forget.  Difficult challenges may be put forth, but real engagement requires leaders to begin bravely modeling the way.

Engagement, though difficult to achieve at times, is possible.  Many structures and methods and processes might be applied to allow you to foster engagement in your employees.  Nothing, however, will move them quicker than seeing you espouse the way and then follow up by seriously walking the talk.  Leaders model the way.

Connect Deeper with Todd

Dr. Dewett’s job is to create better leaders.  Todd is a management professor, speaker, author, coach, radio host, caffeine addict, and Harley Davidson nut.  He has been quoted in the New York TimesBusinessWeek, Forbes, CNNand hundreds of other outlets.  After beginning his career with Andersen Consulting and Ernst & Young, he has since coached or presented to thousands of professionals all over the country.  Visit him on the web at www.drdewett.com, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.

Dr. Dewett is an author, professional speaker, recovering management professor, and Harley Davidson nut. His job is to build better leaders and teams. He is the author of The Little Black Book of Leadership. His unique brand of energetic leadership knowledge has resulted in quotes in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, Forbes, CNN, Investors Business Daily, USA Today, and hundreds of other outlets. After beginning his career with Andersen Consulting and Ernst & Young, he has since spoken to and advised thousands of professionals around the world. Get to know Todd by visiting his home online at drdewett.com, his popular courses at Lynda.com, and his TEDx talk on YouTube.

  • http://www.performanceoptimist.com Matt Heller

    Great post! The activity sounds great and seems like a cool way to illustrate your point.

    I would agree that too often leaders do not look inward for how to develop their teams… but they should!


  • http://www.davidzinger.com David Zinger

    I dream of the day when employee engagement starts with us and we get rid of the us and them false division in the workplace. After all leaders are employees!

  • http://www.malvee.com/jobber Emile Bons

    If the target is to increase employee engagement, it might help as well to start measuring employee engagement. Measuring employee engagement helps you to identify those areas in which you tend to do well and identifies those areas in which the company in general does well.


    Great article Todd. Most bosses will never admit to their own
    weaknesses, particularly where they need to inspire, demonstrate real
    skills in people relationships and manage expectations. Do they care enough, in the first place?

  • There’s a more human way to do business.

    In the Social Age, it’s how we engage with customers, collaborators and strategic partners that matters; it’s how we create workplace optimism that sets us apart; it’s how we recruit, retain (and repel) employees that becomes our differentiator. This isn’t a “people first, profits second” movement, but a “profits as a direct result of putting people first” movement.

  • Contact Us

    1802 North Carson Street
    Suite 206
    Carson City, NV 89701

    Terms & Conditions  |  Privacy Policy


    − 5 = two