ID-10040313A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. —Lao Tzu.

Let’s face it – there is no manager who doesn’t want an engaged outperforming team. What happens is that after getting the kids to school, eating a sandwich while stuffing the laptop into its bag, battling bumper to bumper traffic for an over an hour, sitting through a forty minute review meeting you finally open up your laptop to see over a hundred mails and four meeting requests – by around 11 in the morning, thoughts of engaging with the team goes out the door along with the decision to stick to a healthy diet and get in 30 minutes of exercise.

Sounds familiar?

And in a typical organization, this is the scene at all levels. Every day there are fires to fight, deadlines to meet, plans that threaten to go haywire, calls that interrupt you, urgent messages from the boss telling you to drop everything and start something new. Who has the time to place balloons on the desk of a team member who just fixed a major bug your largest customer reported last month.

Just thinking about it makes your pulse race faster, doesn’t it? Take a deep breath. And read on.

First the good news – the very fact that you are reading this post means that you recognise there is a problem with the extent of engagement you (or your colleagues) have with your teams. (We are all in this together.)

To fix the problem of making time for engaging with your team, you need to take a fundamentally different approach to engagement. Engagement is not something that you do as a one off activity, or even as a separate activity that is to be slotted into the calendar. 10AM-11AM: Engage with team doesn’t work! Engagement is the outcome of the environment you create for your team at your workplace.

The solution: Make sure your team members don’t work a single day.

I know that would have raised a few eyebrows. Bear with me here. Confucius said “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Do the basics right and your team will outperform without you having to buy a single balloon or chocolate cake. (You will of course have lots of time to do it, when your team delivers far ahead of deadlines.)

So to make sure you don’t have to worry about spending time engaging your employees, here are 5 tips that get those elusive engagement levels cranking up.

1. Match skills to the roles: Assigning your team member to something he doesn’t know how to do is the worst mistake a manager can make. Unless it is a case where it’s a deliberate call with full buy-in from the team member this sets the stage for failure and eventual slide into disengagement. (And buy-in doesn’t mean one that is obtained at the threat of a bad annual appraisal).

2. Create Inspiration by showing them the growth path: Managers spend lots of time discussing timelines, weekly targets, deadlines, metrics for the project but hardly any time telling team members of how the current role/task will help them along in their career path. Showing people the big picture helps them to understand how they contribute to the organization as a whole. No cog in a wheel has ever been inspired to do its job – it just does it and one day wears out. Your team members are people who have ambition and goals. Help them understand and align those with the role you have assigned and they will go the extra mile to make things happen.

3. One approach does not fit all: When you interact with your team members, be it for planning, tracking, giving feedback, setting goals, you will have to consider each one of them as the unique person she really is. Some will want it straight; some will need a context to be set, some will need a long talk – barking instructions at them won’t work. Make a mental note (or keep written notes if required) of what works best with each member and use that to smoothen things out for both you and the team member. People aren’t computers. They don’t have a standard communication protocol stack. If your protocol supports ‘terse instructions’, and your team member’s supports ‘detailed explanation with context’, not too much information is going to get passed between the two of you.

4. Communicate useful feedback instantaneously: Countless surveys have revealed that people prefer honest feedback and they prefer it in a timely manner. Good or bad, give useful and actionable feedback. ‘You never do anything in time and always create a mess’ – is neither useful nor actionable. ‘Maybe you could have sent this information out right after you found the bug in the code’ makes more sense and tells the team member what went wrong and what needs to be done to fix the problem. If you have something good to tell about your team-member broadcast it. There is no such thing as too much praise.

5. Foster independence and a culture of open communication: People tend to give their best when they feel responsible for their actions. Micromanaging is an excellent way to disengage your team in record time. Foster a culture of independence in assigned roles and watch the magic happen. Building on from your own approach of frank communication, make sure that people don’t build silos. Creating turfs and then defending them, sap valuable mojo from your team. Break down the barriers and keep everyone on the same page by supporting and encouraging a culture of open communication. Be transparent and encourage others in the team to be as well.

There is only one problem you will face at the end of all this. With your team outperforming and delivering what senior management will refer to as ‘magic!’ you will no longer be an overworked harried looking busy manager. How about that visit to the gym you kept promising yourself?

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