An image of three employees engaging with each other in a friendly way.
How to help them be who they are
by By Katie Zabriskie

“They’re here, but they’re not here. My staff isn’t committed, and it’s obvious to me and our customers. We’re in trouble.”

“To say that initiative is lacking is an understatement. My staff doesn’t think beyond the basics. If they hit a wall, they stop. The idea of looking for a window never crosses their minds. It’s frustrating!”

“Maybe it’s them. Maybe it’s me. Our team just goes through the motions. I wish there were a magic formula to get our people focused and motivated.”

While there isn’t an instant solution for increasing enthusiasm, focus, and initiative, there are steps any leader can take to orchestrate success. Let’s look at some of them.

1. Communicate the direction.

It’s hard for people to reach a destination if they don’t know what it is. Whether you call it mission, purpose or something else, employees need to have a solid understanding of the organization’s why, the team’s why and their why. Leaders who promote engagement regularly can connect day-to-day tasks and expectations with the bigger picture.

Work on creating clear lines of sight. For instance, “Debbie, we’re here to service members. Everything we do should help our members get the most from our conferences. As the registration clerk, it’s important for you to accurately register members and send their confirmation documents within two days of receiving a request. Our goal is timeliness and accuracy.”

2. Delegate responsibility & authority.

Once people know the direction, good leaders give them responsibility and tools they need to execute the plan. Will everything be done exactly as the leader would do it if he or she were to take on the task? Doubtful. However, great leaders know when to step in and when to stand back and let others own their work.

“John, your job is to manage customer returns. While I have guidelines for you to follow, you can decide and then let me know how you will organize your work.”

3. Recognize good work & the importance of others.

No matter their role or level in an organization, people like to be appreciated and recognized. Whether someone is a vice president or a temporary worker, leaders who engage their teams communicate the idea that everyone has an important role. Take the time to articulate how others contribute.

“Eric, you are the face of the office. When people visit us, you are the person who sets the tone. Thank you for taking pride in the appearance of the reception area and screening visitors in a way that doesn’t feel like an interrogation. You’re nailing it.”

4. Support stumbles.

Slips, trips and falls will happen when people solve problems, and leaders who engage their teams to the full capacity have the good sense to support the stumbles employees will inevitably encounter. In other words, it’s about having the maturity to get beyond blame and focus on what to do differently in the future. Do you assume the best? Do you steer clear of throwing others under the bus? Do you treat errors as learning opportunities? If not, you’ve got some room to improve.

“Jose, the event did not go as you had hoped, and now is the time to learn from the experience. In hindsight, what could have been done differently?”

5. Instill a sense of calm & certainty.

Without a clear course, employees spend a lot of time worrying and focusing on what-ifs that may never happen. But with a sense of certainty, people’s shock absorbers function at maximum capacity. A leader with a plan reduces fear, uncertainty and stress. The plan can be short term and it can change, as long as it’s there and communicated. Do you do all you should to keep people in the loop?

“Folks, we’re in a period of transition. We have several companies interested in acquiring us. Nothing has been decided, and for the next two months, we’re going to operate as usual. When I get information to share, I will share what I know. Until then, if you have questions, ask. Our top focus today is hitting the numbers on our secondary production line.”

6. Promote a level playing field.

Fairness trumps favoritism every time, and people will stick with a leader through some horrible circumstances when that person is a straight shooter and doesn’t favor some over others. Stay mindful of what’s fair and think about how your team will perceive your actions.

7. Address problems.

Engaged teams eschew mediocrity, and the people at the top have high standards for everyone. When problems occur, leaders who engage confront them head-on. If you have conversations you’ve put off, now is the time to reset and communicate what’s expected.

Leaders who engage don’t do so by accident or without work. If you want to jump-start or refocus your team, start with these seven steps. With some deliberate effort on your part, you should start seeing results

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team provide on-site, virtual and online soft-skills training courses and workshops to clients in the United States and internationally. For more information, visit