I’ve started to put more thought into the notion that’s been brewingin my head for a while. Here’s how it goes: at work, you can broadly
divide employees into two pools: Engaged and Not Engaged. The latter
sounds negative but it’s really not meant to be.
It started many years ago when I entered the work force and heard somany dread going to work. At first I was puzzled, then I was thankful
for many years, and finally I reached a state of understanding.
Puzzling It Out
I was puzzled by how people could survive doing something they hateddoing for the majority of each work day. Shouldn’t you just figure out a
way to like what you’re doing or, failing that, change jobs?
Over time, I realized that not everyone has the opportunity to dowhat they love to do. And so I became thankful that I did. I looked at
all the fields of work out there and how people got to where they were.
And I started to think about all the lucky breaks I got on the path to
where I was. So I settled into years of gratitude. I still couldn’t
quite understand how some of my co-workers were less enthused by what
they were doing. If I’m being honest, there was some unfair judgement
But I stayed there for a long time until I became a manager about 8years ago. At that point, I found myself (frequently) in the position
where I really had to understand what was going on with the less engaged
personality. How is it that these folks are doing a great job but also
that much about the why behind itall.
So that’s when I started to approach the problem with two importantassumptions: 1. Everyone involved has good intentions.
2. Everyone involved has equal skill levels (or at least they net out tobeing on par with one another)
No doubt, these assumptions are not always true, but I would saythose situations are more exceptional.
The question I wanted to answer: how is it that some Engineers arehighly engaged in the team (and even in the company) while others are
not. And a follow up: what do I mean by “Engaged”.
An Engaged Team
An engaged team is like a gear that is locked into position turningand being turned by other teams. A disengaged team is not fully in
position to have the same effect. But this mental model I’ve had is
flawed. That’s because a disengaged teammate can be incredibly
productive without the interruptions that sometimes come with deeper
engagement. There are other nuanced benefits of engagement that I won’t
get into here, but speaking in terms of productivity only, it’s not as
clear a picture as I would like.
But the disengaged employee does not necessarily “move” with theteam. That is, they’re not
as interested in the why of whatthey’re doing and they are content to fully understand and execute the
what. The more engaged folks feel like they must understand the
why to be happy at work. In fact, it’s more than that - theengaged feel like they need to be a part of the why in some way.
Empowerment is a measure of the amount of influence that a teammate has
why of an organization. As companies and teamsgrow, this level of empowerment tends to become more and more isolated
to a smaller and smaller fraction of that team. The truth is that not
everyone can (or should) be influencing the why at alltimes
Too Many Cooks
So, if everyone on a team is fully engaged, disconent increases. Itis a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario - but one that is
avoidable. As I see it, this can be avoided in one of two ways:
1) distributing the highly engaged to other teams that have ashortfall in engagement
This can solve multiple problems atonce by satisfying the need for engagement on the part of the moved
teammate and potentially unlocking engagement on the pre-existing
2) redirecting that energy toward a purpose that is lessfocused on the specific team’s burden and more on the larger
Guilds (or whatever you want to call them) are agood option as long as it is empowered to affect change. This requires
leadership buy-in and messaging that gives the group the necessary
authority. Once those ingredients are in play, the engaged teammate will
likely have a feeling of satisfaction and the larger team benefits from
their energy and motivation.
The engaged employees tend to need to have a feeling of empowermentand belonging that the less engaged employee needs.
I really want to be careful here because this is where I have, in thepast, taken a more negative direction. My mistake was to assume that
being disengaged is necessarily bad.
The less engaged employee still cares about the success of thecompany, the team and the project. It’s not that they do not need to
feel that engagement or the feeling of empowerment - it’s just that they
do not draw that need wholly from their workplace.
That revelation changed my perspective profoundly. It got me thinkingof work/life balance and the relationship between work engagement and
Because we are not omnipotent, when we pay attention to one thing,that means something else is not getting attention paid to it. That
sounds obvious as I write it, but it’s something that I have not been
willing to accept until very recently.
So it’s not that people are deciding to be disengaged. Itonly means that the things they choose to engage in are different than
the things I choose to engage in. In other words, in the continuum of
work/life balance, they are trending closer to the middle while I am
have spent an inordinate amount of time closer to the work side of
This is a personal choice and likely one that changes for each personover time. Work/Life balance shifts depending on what’s going on with
each at any given time. That said, some have a predelection for one or
the other given the same set of events. The question isn’t whether they
are right or wrong, the question is whether that is what they need at
any given time.
In the end, a manager should try to stay in step with their report tounderstand as much as possible what that they
need atany given time. If you see them lean too heavily into work at the
expense of their sanity, you might try to guide them back into balance.
If you see them lose touch with work, you might try to gently nudge them
back into a more engaged posture. But the key here is to understand and
to empathize. And, of course, that isn’t easy because like many of us,
it’s not all that clear what the “right” posture is. The only thing we
can do is make educated guesses and try things and use one-on-ones to
understand each other and make better educated guesses in the