The secrets to building an engaged and productive team


Whether you’re leading a small team or a whole organisation, engaged and productive teams are an essential ingredient if you want to have an impact through your leadership. Teams are the lifeblood of an organisation. If teams are not engaged and productive, you probably won’t get very far, either as a leader, or with the purpose you’ve been employed to serve.

There are so many strategies you could adopt to build a more engaged and productive team. Lots of these strategies will work. And yet some teams never quite manage to fully engage with the vision the organisation is trying to achieve. This means they also fail to reach their potential in terms of productivity.

I’ve been thinking about the secrets to building engaged and productive teams and I’ve identified five strategies that really made a difference when I was a leader. I learnt these strategies by doing them – perhaps a bit too much on the fly. Reading back over this article now, it occurs to me that I wish I could have read my own article when I was a CEO, then I could have been more conscious about implementing these five strategies in my leadership.

The first point to note is – don’t stop anything you’re already doing that’s helping you improve engagement and productivity. If it’s working, keep going! But if you add the five strategies that I suggest, I have absolutely no doubt the engagement and productivity of your team will go up.

Here are my five secrets to engaged and productive teams:

1. Be curious
2. Be vulnerable
3. Be purposeful
4. Be compassionate
5. Remember it’s not about you

Be curious

Mindfulness teaches us that it’s more helpful to be curious than judgmental. Is someone underperforming? Start by asking what’s going on for them rather than pre-judging the situation. Judging will only increase your frustration and turn you into a micro-manager. If your curiosity is genuine, you will create a psychologically safe space for people to be open with you, while also building trust and rapport.

The purpose of your curiosity is not to get information to use against people in any way. If they sense anything like that in your curiosity, you will get the opposite of what you actually seek: disengagement and poor productivity. Your motivation should be simply to understand the members of your team, so that you can better support them in their roles.

As you get to know the members of your team, you’ll also discover they have a wealth of skills and talents. They might have more to contribute to the work of your organisation than you realise. Your curiosity then becomes the jumping off point for greater collaboration, and even for innovation.

Be vulnerable

Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability is an inspiration and a challenge to all leaders to step out of your comfort zone. Working with and leading people is never going to be easy. Leadership always involves dealing with people, and this will inevitably mean you will be bumping up against each other. Sometimes you’re going to need to have difficult conversations.  Having these conversations might feel uncomfortable, but’s it’s always going to be better than leaving things unsaid. If there’s an issue or a problem, it won’t be resolved until it’s discussed.

Asking for feedback on your leadership is one action you can take that will involve being vulnerable, but it also will demonstrate your emotional intelligence. Asking for feedback is likely to call on your reserves of courage because, sometimes, the feedback might be critical. If you’re willing to give and receive feedback fearlessly, you will be rewarded with greater trust and connection, which will, in turn, support engagement and productivity.

There’s also a positive feedback loop built in to this strategy. When you receive feedback, and take the feedback on board with grace and humility, it’s an opportunity to model vulnerability and emotional intelligence for your team, and this will build even more engagement.

Be purposeful

Are you clear about your organisation’s purpose, as well as your personal purpose? Are these purposes well aligned?  If not, it’s time to revisit your personal and organisational purposes, and take action to make them more aligned.

Your team also needs to be clear about their purpose and this means you need to be articulating your purpose as a team, and as an organisation, on a regular basis. It’s also really important to make the connection between the day-to-day tasks people are doing, and the purpose these tasks are meant to serve. Without these connections, it’s difficult for people to stay engaged and productive.

Read more about purpose in my article What do you really, really want?. The key point to focus on is this – your purpose is the thing that gives you fulfilment, not just happiness. Although we all want to be happy, the reality is that happiness is impermanent; the bliss of a happy experience never lasts. By contrast, fulfilment comes when you are doing something that is connected directly to your purpose, so fulfilment is an enduring experience.

The real challenge for you and your team is to find a sustainable sense of fulfilment.  When you’re purposeful, even mundane and routine tasks can be fulfilling.  It’s useful to think about how each task serves your purpose as a team. Entering client data can become fulfilling if you recall that the data will be used to design services that better respond to the needs of those clients. You are actually helping to improve your clients’ lives.

Be compassionate

Do you care about the people you lead? Empathy involves actually showing that you care for your team. Why would team members go that extra mile – or even bother to work hard – if the organisation, and you as their Manager, don’t care about them? It helps to remember that every member of your team is a human being with joys and struggles – just like you.

Tracey Brower, the author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work, distinguishes between cognitive and emotional empathy. With cognitive empathy you consider what another person is thinking – “what would I be thinking right now if I were I her position?” With emotional empathy, you are relating to another person’s feelings – “If I were in her position it would make me feel….”

You begin by cultivating cognitive and emotional empathy, but the next step is to cultivate compassion, especially when someone in your team is in pain or struggling.  This can be a hard strategy to embrace because when a team member is really struggling, they can’t fully engage in work and their productivity declines.  You probably just want them to stop struggling and start being productive! It’s a process that can take some time, but the best way to support people when they’re struggling is to put their mental health and wellbeing first. Productivity will follow.

When did a leader ever get more engagement and productivity from a team member by showing they don’t care about the team member’s wellbeing?  I suggest the answer to this question is – never. Show that you care by taking concrete steps to look after people’s wellbeing. Over time, this will definitely be rewarded with a high level of engagement and productivity from the whole team.

Remember it’s not about you

The first four strategies say a lot about how you are as a person – and as a leader. But remember, leadership is not about you.

This can be a challenging message for some leaders to hear. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you’re great at what you do. It’s a pretty normal to want to be appreciated. But if you remember it’s not about you, the first four strategies will be even more effective for your purpose as a leader, which is to lead. You will be modelling for your team how important it is to put the team before the individual.

Putting the team first means you will be putting the needs and aspirations of the team before your own, and each member of the team is called on to do the same. You will also need to be open to the ideas and input of all members of the team. No-one has all the answers, or a monopoly on the best way to get things done. When you implement “team before individual” as a strategy, imagine what you will be able to achieve together?

I believe most people share this basic human motivation in their lives and work: to do better and be better. With the five strategies I have outlined, you will be offering your team the guidance and support they need to do better and be better, and to make a greater contribution to the purpose the team exists to serve. Given the chance, team members will want to take up the challenge to be more engaged and productive. You just need to show them how.

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years. Maria’s Emotionally Intelligent Leaders’ Program helps participants build engaged and productive teams, by making deep and lasting changes – from the inside out – to the way they lead. To find out more, contact Maria.

References:

Brower, Tracey (2021). The Secrets to Happiness at Work: How to Choose and Create Purpose and Fulfillment in Your Work. Simple Truths, Naperville, USA.

© Maria Brett, 2022