Andy Kanefield: How to get tuned in to what drives your employees at your company Featured

8:01pm EDT June 30, 2012
Andy Kanefield, founder, Dialect Inc. Andy Kanefield, founder, Dialect Inc.

In “Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence,” the authors tell the story of a manager who used cars in the parking lot as a barometer of her team’s collective emotions after a merger. Immediately after the merger announcement, she noticed full parking lots even late into the evening.

She interpreted this as an extra level of excitement about the potential opportunities afforded by the merger. Over time, and as post-merger change initiatives foundered, the number of cars decreased, and she interpreted this as decreasing excitement and commitment.

But she also noticed that certain cars were a constant. There were “pockets of people” that remained productive and happy in the midst of delays in progress with the merger.  What she found was that most people who endured the change with positivity were protected from the disorder by leaders who included them in the process of change, gave them needed information and provided as much control as possible over their destiny.

Effective leaders know how to promote engagement regardless of the strength of the winds of change — or in this case the lack of progress. 

Something in our business environments is always changing — either internally or externally. In addition, something in our business environments is always stalled.  Leaders need to understand how to keep the energy level up during challenging times.

Some of the most effective leadership behaviors during tough times are illustrated in this post-merger example: Include your team as much as possible, give them critical information and allow team members the appropriate level of autonomy so they feel they have some level of control over their immediate work environment.

The authors of “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work,” offer another key component of engagement. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer suggest that “of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” 

Think about the last time a key corporate client said to you, “You guys are integral to our success; we couldn’t have done this without you.” Were your steps a little lighter that day? After celebrating that success with others and thanking all involved for their contributions, how much more motivated were you to do a great job for that client?  How much more motivated was your team?

As leaders, we need to ensure that our employees are not only making progress with organizational goals, but that they believe that their work matters. How do we do that? 

There are several key principles to keep in mind: First, of course, is that people find meaning in their work in different ways. Some derive value primarily by how much they please your customers. Others focus almost exclusively on what they can acquire from their employment: status, money, etc. Others want to build an organization or army of people who will accomplish something great for its own sake and some simply derive pleasure from getting things done. What they do is less important than the accomplishment of achieving goals. Finally, there are people who find meaning by working with others who are like a family to them. 

While none of us typically focus exclusively on just one source of meaning, it helps to remember that people do extract different primary sources of meaning and that leaders and managers need to have this in mind as they seek to lead others.

Second, once you know how your team members find meaning, make sure you don’t obscure it. Be clear about how what your team is doing connects to something beyond the day-to-day tasks in ways that has meaning to each person.

Finally, if you lead the entire organization, be clear with everyone, not just your team, on how the strategies, initiatives and measurable goals connect to different sources of meaning.

Helping people see the links between the progress they are making in their daily tasks and the meaning in their lives or the lives of others is one of the key tasks of leadership.  Doing this well can only serve to fuel the fire of full engagement for your employees and for you.

Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense:  One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” Dialect helps organizations improve alignment and translation of organizational identity. To explore how to get greater alignment behind systemic organizational changes, you may reach Andy at (314) 863-4400 or