The Hard Work of Building a Culture of Engagement on Your Team


When I left the meeting, I drove out of the parking lot and let out a guttural scream, that if it were a sonic wave, would surely of had enough blast radius to crack the windshield.  This monthly meeting comprised only one dimension of the organization, but it belayed a malaise that had metastasized for years across the entire culture. From communication that lacked the courage to say what needed to be said, to the blatant disregard for sticking to an agenda, to an obvious emotional disconnect between team members, I knew in my heart that my tenure at this organization was not going to be long.

In Brave New Work, Aaron Dignan states, “We’ve inherited a world in which you can buy a McDonald’s hamburger in 119 countries.  But it’s also a world where 2 out of 3 people are disengaged at work.” He goes on to highlight reasons why.  They include the following:

  • Lack of trust
  • Lack of clarity for who makes decisions
  • Bottlenecks for decision-making
  • People have to ask for permission in order to take action
  • Opinions matter more than data
  • Too many meetings or they don’t lead to decisions or actions
  • Interpersonal Drama
  • No time in the day for actual work
  • Only the loudest voices get heard
  • Lack of transparency
  • Lack of honesty or candor
  • Outdated technology
  • Too much reliance on email
  • The why behind decisions isn’t clear
  • Information shared on need-to-know basis only

As I review this list, nearly every one of these engagement blockers were present to some degree in the story I shared. This resulted in a constant churn of activity with little progress toward achieving our desired results.  Inevitably, the decision-making process was hamstrung and the lack of openness to address deeper issues behind problems led to solutions that felt like putting a band aid on a hemorrhage. At the end of every meeting, a common refrain from the leader, “It felt really good to talk about that.” was as far as it got. No action steps were identified to address the issues that were being discussed. Nothing changed.

Lack of engagement on a team does not happen in isolation.  Teams are impact units within an organization’s culture, and just like plants that grow organically in the right environment, they possess the possibility of bearing much fruit.  But just like you wouldn’t throw everything you have at a plant without regard for the kind of nutrients needed to help it to thrive, developing a solid strategy for growing team engagement requires a thoughtful and well metered process.

When Aaron Dignan and his leadership team sought to transform their culture so that their teams could thrive, they began by stepping back and taking a serious look at who they had become.  He states, “We became ethnographers (a person who studies and describes the culture of a particular society or group) of our own culture.  This meant embracing radical candor that can only come when you start asking the right questions.”  Here are ten of the questions around purpose and workflow that began to reveal common beliefs, habits and practices that people had adopted.

  • What is our reason for being?
  • What will be different if we succeed?
  • Whom do we serve?  Who is our customer and user?
  • What is meaningful about our work?
  • How do we divide the work of the organization?
  • What is the relationship between our workflow and our structure?
  • Who is accountable for project management?
  • How are projects initiated, canceled, or completed?
  • What is the role of rhythm and tempo in our workflow?
  • How do we optimize our workflow to minimize waste and maximize value creation

Wrangling with these questions led gradual shifts in mindsets, behaviors, and the way team members showed up, as Aaron describes; “One day we looked up and we were meeting differently.  Deciding differently.  Talking differently…We realized what only those companies that really care about their way of working know – that you’re never done. You’re always learning.  Always changing.”

The shifts that were taking place in people’s perspectives and in the ways team members worked together had ripple effects across the organization’s culture.  It happened because of the intentional choice to take the harder, more arduous path that scrutinizes values, elicits difficult conversations, and exposes vulnerability.  However, rather than implementing a quick-fix that offers only temporary change at best, the harder path that leads toward lasting engagement offers the possibility of deep and organic personal fulfillment, higher productivity, and the chance to make a difference with others.

If engagement is truly what you are committed to, then it means that leaders must let go of previously held assumptions in order to join their people and their teams in co-creation of a desired future.  Aaron describes it like this; “While we can’t pick a specific future state and realize it through sheer force of will, that doesn’t mean we can’t steer in the direction of our values.  We want to create organizations that are people positive and complexity conscious – full of humanity, vitality, and adaptivity.  That means that we should measure the results of our experiments, probes, nudges, and flips according to those ideals. Our goal isn’t harmony.  Our goal is an ever-better organization.  We have a name for what happens when everyone in an organization is engaged, and empowered to shape and reshape its operating system.  We call it ‘continuous participatory change.’”

It is this desire to help organizations and teams create participatory change that fuels our training engine at ULEAD.  Building a people-positive culture requires leaders who are willing to embrace the difficult and messy change strategy, and who are open to admit their own failures and growth areas.  And the engagement that ensues creates fertile ground for greater accountability and attention to results as every team member becomes emotionally invested in co-creating the desired future.

For more information about ULEAD Teambuilding and Leadership Development experiences, visit our Programs page or email

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