Engaging Your Workforce Around the Work

Engagement with a purpose is the over-arching theme to building and sustaining a high-performing culture in a unique and measurable way.

While studies have consistently found a high positive correlation between employee engagement and financial performance, the data also shows that correlation is not necessarily causation; and while employee engagement is a necessary ingredient for high performance, like flour to a cake, it is not enough.

In contrast, “Engagement Around the Work” involves specific steps for achieving a culture of engagement that is inextricably linked with team productivity, performance and job satisfaction. It incorporates a clear objective of engaging people around the one thing they all have in common-and the one thing that can bring about increased profitability and a sustainable competitive edge: the work.

Consider that engagement for “engagement’s sake” has been a prevalent trend over the past several decades, and most of these engagement efforts have failed to yield tangible results. They have also failed the sustainability test.

As is the case with any improvement initiative, an ad-hoc approach involving little or no planning or structure, and lacking defined, measurable objectives, is prone to failure.

In contrast, a more focused approach of improving both the work and the workplace in a measurable way can result in high-levels of productivity, profitability and engagement. As explained by one successful leader in the field, “We engage employees in aggressive efforts to eliminate waste and reinvest those savings in ways that are visible and meaningful to the employees.”

This perspective is well-aligned with our approach, which differs from traditional attempts at employee engagement in two important ways:

A strong focus on productivity and continuous improvement as catalysts to engagement
A strong focus on measurement and return on investment

Driving productivity as a means of achieving and maintaining high-levels of workforce engagement enables an organization to more easily promote and reward desired behaviors, measure and document progress, and ultimately realize tangible results.

Equally as important, the measured return on investment enables leadership to further invest in the workforce as well as the workplace, thus promoting a culture of continuous improvement and engagement throughout.

The Concept of CPI²

As noted in a previous article, people are much more likely to become engaged when they feel productive… when they feel like they are achieving success and

that they are an important part of the organization’s success; when they feel that they have a voice in creating a better – and yes, more productive – workplace as well as a better future. Productivity leads to engagement, not the other way around.

This means we must create a culture that is based on improving all that we do (our work and our workplace) and which enables and empowers every employee at every level to make improvements through involvement and commitment – through being engaged!

Put another way:


People become increasingly engaged as they improve their work and workplace – as they become more productive and experience greater levels of job satisfaction while embracing a stronger belief in a secure future… a future they are helping to build and a future in which they have a voice.

The strategy involves two key components:

Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) – Attaining optimum results from your improvement effort requires an objective analysis, innovative vision and diligent execution. This means you need a methodology to gather, synthesize and analyze data, a rigorous method of priority-setting to decide what to work on (or to gather more data on), and effective and efficient ways to study, change and improve the work processes and the workplace.
Continuous People Involvement (CPI) – People at all levels must be educated, empowered and engaged so that the concept of improving both their work and their workplace becomes cultural.

This will involve identifying a clear link between individual, team and department performance and organizational goals, and helping people develop a clear sense of purpose.

In addition, leaders must create effective communication protocols to learn and

understand the things that are most meaningful to employees. They must also

devote the necessary time and attention to the performance management culture, and create a work environment that supports high quality and productivity. This will include:

Helping people at all levels understand the core values and beliefs which drive behavior.
Promoting practices that are in sync with organizational values and beliefs.
Clearly defining roles and responsibilities, performance gaps and accountabilities.
Helping managers develop and refine their skills and ability to coach for improved performance.
Recognizing achievement.

Since the combination of Continuous Process Improvement and Continuous People Involvement can yield breakthrough results, we refer to it as CPI².

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Beating Problems At Their Own Game

The Ladder of Problem Solving makes evident the dynamic nature of problems and the progressive thinking needed to plan ahead of them. There are six rungs on this cognitive ladder from problem identification to effective resolution.

RUNG #1 – DETECTION is sensing a change or awareness that the environment is different; people and situations are different and strange things are occurring. It is the level of sensitivity one has for noticing slight shifts in occurrences, changes in routines, unusual or unexplainable events. Detecting problems can begin in one moment of wonder, with a flash of doubt or at any point of indecision. Problem detection or sensing an opportunity for involvement is the first point of engagement. It is intuition.

Challenge: We solve only what we see. So, even upon notice and receiving new information we reject it or deny its existence. We surmise that if it were a problem someone else would already be working on it.

Goal: Detect problems sooner and take action at the point of origin

RUNG #2 – INCLINATION to act is necessary. The reactions to a detected problem may include avoidance, deferral, denial or paralysis. Inclination refers to the level of desire one has to get involved. It is the motivation that drives one to make a difference, to move past acceptance and to affect change. While some jump in for fear of reprisal, others for the sake of honor, some only step up to be noticed. At a minimum there must be a willingness to try.

Challenge: People are more likely to avoid acting not because of motivation or desire but because of mixed signals, unclear goals, undefined roles, conflicting priorities or unnecessary barriers.

Goals: Reduce approach avoidance by building confidence and providing proper incentives. Improve the motivation to address problems as they emerge before they take root.

RUNG #3 – CAPABILITY is the experience, knowledge, and ability one uses to identify the best responses and then act on them. Technical skills and content knowledge are developed and most effective in predictable stable environments. The employee is able to rely on habit, routine, and recall. In new situations a person searches their memory for the experiences and knowledge that apply to the situation at hand. They must be able to search for new answers that expands their span of control and to develop the confidence needed to act on new problems as they arise.

Challenge: Prior successful experience using one approach results in a reluctance to investigate alternatives. Even when people have the requisite technical skills they don’t know how to apply to the specific situation. Reliance on existing knowledge becomes a barrier to addressing new situations. When facing new situations there is a tendency to screen out, reject, and rely only on previous learning. That selective filtering diminishes the ability to detect shifts soon enough and the variations between them to be effective.

Goal: Increase span of control and ability to identify and address problems effectively to retard their growth. Improve the ability to apply technical knowledge, experience and to identify the root cause of problems and accept that more is within their control.


Skilled purposeful questioning used to uncover the unknown; what information is needed, and what more can be done. Inquiry begins with what is already known and uses questions skillfully to gather more information; analyze problems from multiple perspectives, examine underlying issues, predict consequences, explore assumptions and consider alternative explanations. Inquiry is needed to isolate the most important issues, separate opinion from fact and connect previous experiences to new ones.

Challenge: Eagerness to solve a problem before the problem is properly defined. There is a tendency to ask low-level questions of confirmation and not enough high level questions for exploration. Asking questions to prove what is rather than finding out what is not and why? Leaning too much on what is believed and not challenging those beliefs or revealing the unknown.

Goal: Increase level of intellectual curiosity, reflection and insight needed to predict the nature and growth of problems. Ask high level, high productivity questions until links become apparent and hidden opportunities are revealed. Develop greater understanding, make more connections, identify patterns, and trends.


A skilled response is thinking turned to action in uncertain and unpredictable environments. It is the situation recognition, focus and accurate performance without prompting or hesitation. Start at the beginning. Examine the problem from all sides, isolate the issues and identify the gap that needs to be closed. The focus is on goal formation and devising a manner for tracking and measuring output. To get there requires sorting, analyzing and synthesis of all information received. The response produces the best options and many alternative paths that will lead to the goal.

Challenge: The tendency to select the most obvious but incorrect solution to the problem. The failure to consider probabilities and consequences before taking action produces alternative pathways with no consideration for costs or trade-offs; to jump to solutions without thought of how they will impact the goals.

Goal: Begin with the end in mind creating the highest set of viable options that will slow the growth and speed the disposition of the problem.


Goal focused plans direct the energy, resources, time, and effort toward value-added results. Directed results are the evidence of sound judgment and reasoned decision making. They require collaboration and effective communication to influence outcomes and negotiate obstacles in real time. Directed results include selecting the paths, the options and the alternates with the highest probability of success. It means weighing the possible gains against the projected costs. Start with measures that matter and work toward them. Execute on the plans with an expectation that challenges and sub-problems will emerge. Results are expressed in measures of money, cost, time, and quality not merely in the completion of tasks.

Challenge: Getting trapped in the tasks and losing focus of the goal. Getting stuck on what worked before. Changing the plan too quickly or not recognizing when a new plan is needed before cost rise, time elapses, or resources are compromised.

Goal: Start with measures that matter and dispose of the problem in the most effective way to deliver the highest rate of return. Solve the problem in a way that produces fewer unintended consequences.

Valarie is a Performance Improvement Strategist passionate about learning and improving performance in organizations. She’s a writer, presenter, and executive coach on a mission to get every employee and organization focused on and thinking about the SIX business driving goals that matter.

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Stages of Change Can Be Challenging

We talk a great deal about change in our practice. The only constant in life is change. And it’s so true! Every project you take on, regardless of size or scope, creates a change in the status quo. That kicks off several stages of change that result in a series of predictable emotions and behaviors.

Sometimes they’re easy changes, ones you look forward to, such as getting a promotion or moving into a new job at another company. But you still go through all the stages of change similar to the Kübler-Ross Stages of Grief – shock/loss, denial, bargaining/acceptance, sadness/depression (the hang-in point), and finally acceptance and even excitement about the new reality.

Think about the change of moving into a new, challenging job. You go through a sense of loss because you lose your colleagues in the department or company you’re leaving. You may experience a little denial, telling yourself it’s time to move on and you won’t miss your colleagues. You may experience sadness about the memories and friends you left behind. Then you accept the reality of the change – you’re moving on, it’s a little scary because you don’t know what to expect in the new position. You’ll be meeting new people and having to figure out how to work together.

If it’s a new management position, you have the challenge of learning how to delegate and manage others. Then as you think about the challenges ahead, you begin to see the possibilities and start focusing on the new challenges you’re taking on. And finally, as you adjust to the new position and get to know your team and your colleagues, you begin to feel excitement and passion for taking on the challenges and helping the organization move forward.

Depending on your circumstances, you can go through these emotions quickly, in a matter of minutes or hours, or it may take days for you to cycle through the stages of change. If the new position is something you pursued, you’ll likely move through the stages of change quickly. If it’s something that happened to you and not one you actively sought, then the adjustment could take longer – even weeks or months.

Frequently, especially when people aren’t involved in creating the change and instead are just told about it, a few will never adjust. They can move between the states of depression and anger for months or longer (the hang-in point), unless the manager is skilled at either coaching them through the emotions or invites them to find alternative employment.

Sometimes, the people remove themselves to find other employment options more suited to them. Either way, the organization suffers if these individuals are allowed to remain in a state of anger or depression. They can turn a positive environment into a negative one, putting a blanket of confusion, doubt and concern on the change process.

As a leader it’s important to recognize where your people are in each of the stages of change and coach them through their emotions. Your goal is to get as many of them to the other side of the emotional rollercoaster as soon as possible, and to quickly remove those who just can’t get on board.

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Stop Whining About “Change”!

As I look out my office window, I see the leaves on the trees are starting to change color. Believe it or not, I’m not shocked by this. Nor am I wailing about the fact that the temperature is dropping and that dusk is coming earlier than it did a month ago.

Am I superhuman? Perhaps, but not because of this. The simple truth is that, if you’ve been alive on the planet (Earth) for more than a few years, you start to recognize the patterns. You start to realize that summer ends and fall begins. Every. Single. Year.

In short, you start to realize that change is the natural order of things.

Why then, do we become apoplectic when change comes to our business?

By the way, I realize that I’m using one of the most clichéd and hackneyed metaphors possible. (Look, the leaves are changing! Change happens! Change is good!) But I’m doing this for two reasons: 1) it’s happening right outside my window, so I can’t help but notice it, and, 2) sometimes we need to be hit over the head with the obvious.

Change is the natural order of things. The Big Bang was a big change. I don’t hear anyone complaining about it, though. Human life evolving, over millions of years, from single-celled organisms represents a change that I think we can all get behind. For that matter, I’m not at all unhappy that T-Rexes are no longer around to stomp on my tomato vines* and eat my pets (or me).

*Full disclosure: I don’t have any tomato vines.

Things change. That’s natural. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. What’s unnatural is the status quo.

And yet that’s where so many of us want to stay. And we’re shocked when it doesn’t happen.

We’re shocked when automation changes the nature of our industry. We’re shocked when the marketing campaign that worked so well last year underperforms this year. We’re shocked when the competition comes up with a product or service that changes the game.

We want things to stay the same.

Haven’t we learned anything? Haven’t we looked at the leaves? Haven’t we read any history book, ever? Haven’t we noticed that the baby clothes we wore as a toddler no longer fit? (And, even if it did, it might not be the best fashion choice.)

Look, I don’t know what business you’re in. But I can make a prediction about it, with 100% certainty:

Things are going to change.
Accept this. Anticipate this. And yes, even embrace this. Because it’s going to happen.

Part of your job as a leader is to be constantly asking yourself this question:

What might change in my business, and what will I do if that happens?

As a leader, what would you do if:

a major supplier goes out of business?
a major client changes leadership and drops your account?
a catastrophe (earthquake, terrorist attack, celebrity divorce) devastates your industry or the economy in general?
one of your key employees leaves?

I don’t want you to become paranoid. But I do want you to become realistic. Thinking, hoping, wishing that things will stay the same is not realistic.

The leaves change. The seasons change. And so will your business. Will you be ready for it?

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Invasion of the Business Snatchers: The Business Owner’s Nightmare

If your company is in commercial or industrial sales, you’re used to changes in market forces. Sometimes your company gets ahead of the curve and experiences rapid growth. Sometimes you just tread water: you don’t lose ground, but you don’t make measurable gains, either.

Revenue is the barometer that reports how the marketplace measures the effectiveness of your sales, marketing, offering, policies and operations. And customers are at the heart of revenue. Customer feedback is the tool that assesses where you stand, why that’s true, and where customers want you to make changes. Letting your customers tell you what they expect of you yields a wealth of information and helps your company manage its footprint in the marketplace. Three vital business areas feedback helps shape are:

Customer retention.
Revenue growth.

Competitiveness, customer retention and growth are always being challenged by market forces. But the market force change that was easy to predict yet hard to plan for is the retirement of the Boomer generation. What it took to successfully compete, retain and grow in the past will be rendered obsolete once the generational “changing of the guard” reaches its tipping point in your marketplace. It will feel like the business version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Generational changing of the guard. When they first entered the work force, members of Generation X were characterized as spoiled brats who wanted everything handed to them. Millennials are candid about placing their personal lives ahead of their day jobs. They were each easy to dismiss when the oldest of their generations broke into entry-level jobs. By now you’ve made your own observations about how each group changes the workplace. Today Gen X-ers have matured and fill key roles, and Millennials are moving up the ranks. Maybe you’re one yourself.

The oldest Baby Boomers began leaving the work force almost ten years ago. Boomer-generation company owners are starting to leave in droves with each hiccup in the economy whether through closing their companies, selling to competitors (or private equity groups), or handing the reins over to Gen X-ers groomed for the role and waiting in the wings.

Competitiveness. Any change in leadership at companies you compete with and sell to subtly puts your company on notice that status quo business practices may no longer create status quo sales. This is a valid concern for leaders of all generations. But because Boomers are used to making everyone else flex to accommodate them, the key message here is this: If you are a Boomer who isn’t quite ready to sell or retire, then stay nimble and be aware of the changes that are about to wash over you.

Your competitors and customers will increasingly be owned by Gen X leaders.
Gen X-ers make decisions differently than your Boomer competitors and customers did.
Individual competitors might change over night from familiar adversaries to total strangers following a change in leadership (or ownership).

Retention. Change puts new demands on what it takes to hold onto existing customers, too. New leaders at your customers’ companies may have different expectations of their vendors. As with any new owner, they are likely to evaluate the vendors they inherited with an unsympathetic eye. Without reaching out periodically and staying abreast of why key customers buy from you, it’s possible to miss a shift in expectations that re-categorize your status quo business practices from “fine” to “inadequate.” And the shift may come without warning.

The message here is this: Reach out and periodically ask-in an open-ended way-where key customers see room for improvement. You never want to lose relationships because of a last-straw incident when you had no idea your company was the source of recurring irritants. Rather than make assumptions about why customers are loyal, ask key customers why they’re loyal, ask what would put the relationship at risk, and ask what changes they’d like to see. (You’re not obligated to follow through on all their suggestions, but it’s better to know than to not know what customers think and want.)

Growth. Without learning why your company wins new sales and retains existing customers, you weaken your ability to make growth plans based on factors you can influence. Without clear insights into how customers think, your company risks being an economic cork in the water that surges and dips in step with the overall economy. Surges mask how well companies are run because some customers are forced to lower their standards and buy from any available supplier. By contrast, dips reveal weaknesses; fewer decisions are being made, competition heats up, and customers’ standards go up.

Moving in step with the economy isn’t your only option. If you have competitors who weather economic downturns better than you do, they’re probably not simply luckier than you are. Rather, they may be more diligent in assessing and adapting to changes in how customers make decisions.

At the center of every selection decision is a decision-maker. Regardless of which generations are represented by the decision-makers and influencers at your customers’ companies, you need to stay in active communication with the people who know you best. One step you can take before the next downturn hits is to listen to how they chose vendors during the last downturn.

For companies that sell through dealers, how did your dealers push sell-through during periods of slow demand? What could your company have done differently to get better dealer support?
For companies that compete for projects, how were competitors evaluated (time & materials costs, project price, full-service offering, another approach)? What innovations did customers see that they’d recommend all competitors offer?
For companies with long-term relationships, were your customers approached by your competitors with attractive offers? What changes should you make to keep your relationships resistant to poachers?

The message here is this: Learn how your customers made decisions in lean times. This will help you take better command of your company’s growth in good times and bad. Nobody is surprised to hear customers ask for lower prices. Even when that’s not the driving factor, the pressure to keep prices down raises the urgency to bring costs down by optimizing technology, operational strategies and deal-making with your own suppliers.

And remember, each downturn will create a stampede of resignations until Boomers have all retired or sold their companies. Expect to pay attention to changes in leadership at competing and customer companies for the next ten years. By actively monitoring what your most important customers think and want, you will always know how to:

make yourself easy to do business with,
earn on-going customer loyalty, and
be chosen in lean times.

Boomers have been a force to be reckoned with for decades. For better or worse, business won’t be the same without them. The challenge is to survive the transition.

Ann Amati, Principal, Deliberate Strategies Consulting, helps companies use guidance from their current and past customers to grow future sales. She has a 20-year track record of using deep-dive interviews to create positive turning points in her clients’ relationships with their customers.

In her national practice, Ann has clients who sell millions to companies that make billions and sole practitioners/LLCs with more modest practices. She is the author of, “What Your Customers Aren’t Telling You That You Need to Know,” a collection of case studies, tips and tools for companies in commercial and industrial sales.

Contact Ann Amati when you want to know what your customers think. You’ll start making faster, more confident decisions.

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