Why Are Your Team Members Disengaged?


I have rarely worked on a team where all its members have been highly engaged.  The ones where I have stand out as tremendously enjoyable experiences and I can describe them in great detail.  I don’t remember too many of the others.  It is easy to blame this on the broader malaise indicated by the Gallup survey of employee engagement which highlights only 33% of employees in the US are engaged at work.  While that is a factor, I believe team leaders should not settle for that result on their teams.  So what can you do to create a fully engaged team?  Let’s examine one of the common reasons why team members lack engagement, involuntary assignment of people to teams.

Involuntary Assignment of People to Teams

Most people are volunteered by their manager to join teams.  I believe their managers intention was to do the right thing and assign the appropriate person.  A common trap is to assign the expert to the team.  The experts quickly find themselves on multiple teams and struggle to balance their time across their responsibilities including their core role.  Experts often get assigned to teams in roles they know well and when they are not given a chance to learn new skills and expertise, their level of commitment drops.

When team members are volunteered, they don’t believe they have a choice, and often they don’t.  They believe declining an assignment will lead to their manager thinking less of them and that will be reflected in end of year performance reviews.  This leads to them accepting the assignment in a mood of resignation and doing the minimum that is needed to get a ‘passing grade’ for their participation.

Alternative Approaches to Enroll Team Members and Increase Engagement

  1. The first approach sounds simple at first, give the team members a choice about joining a team.  If it is so simple why isn’t it very common?  From a manager or team leader perspective, following this path creates the risk the prospective team member may say no.  We don’t know what to do when the answer is no and we tend to view the situation as binary, yes or no.  In reality, a no is the start of a new conversation to understand the no.  Perhaps the person is overloaded and needs help prioritizing to find the time to participate fully?  Perhaps they don’t feel they are  good fit or are not passionate about the project.  Through conversation, these issues can be resolved.
  2. We can change the system.  Jama Software in Portland, OR realized they needed to change their system of assigning engineers to projects.  They noticed their project teams were stable which was good, but it started to lead to the creation of silos.  They decided to redesign their team enrollment process and introduced an approach that starts with a ‘science fair’ where each project manager presents what they will be working on in the next Sprint period.  Engineers are given three picks of which teams they want to join and the project managers assign them as best they can.  This approach is creating high engagement, allowing team members to learn new skills and improving cross-team collaboration.
  3. Similar to the Jama Software approach, team leaders can take a small step in this direction during the enrollment process.  Rather than consider each team member assigned, think about the team member as a volunteer who needs to enroll.  The leader treats the first one on one meeting as a two-way interview.  They focus on learning what is important to the potential team member, where are they at, what do they care about?  From there they can talk about the mission of the team and collaborate together to figure out how their role can be crafted to create a win:win, where the team and the individual align their priorities.  This might sound impossible, but you might be surprised what happens where you give it an honest try.

Improving your team member enrollment process won’t solve all of your team member engagement issues, but it will help get your team off to the best start.  What issues have you experienced in the team enrollment process?  What alternative approached have you seen be effective?