Leading Remotely – 6 Ways to Increase Connection and Engagement

Leading Remotely

Will half of people be working remotely by 2020?” That was the title of a prescient article written in 2014. Another report stated that between 2005 and 2018 remote work increased 173%. Still, no one could have predicted what the business world is experiencing right now.

When it comes to the current work from home (WFH) reality, many are enjoying the change. However, working remotely, especially when sudden and required, comes with challenges. For example, one report noted that face-to-face requests are 34 times more successful than email. And while many employees are saving on commute time, they are missing in-person interactions and the sense of belonging that comes from social connection.

While we long for normalcy after this earth-shaking event, the trend toward working remotely is likely to continue to some degree or another. A 2019 survey revealed that about 75% of workers consider flexible working to be “the new normal.” That was in 2019! Now, more than ever, leaders need evolving strategies for leading remotely.

Our DecisionWise research of more than 40 million employee survey responses has shown that “connection,” which we define as “a sense of belonging to something beyond yourself,” is one of the five keys of employee engagement. In fact, it is the key found to have the greatest impact on the overall employee experience(as well as engagement outside of work—in community, family, social groups, etc.).

So, that raises the question: assuming we will see a greater push towards a WFH population, how do we continue to ensure connection? Based on our research into engagement, we have found that a few baseline items must be met.

Ensure Baseline Communication

Leading remotely for high performance certainly includes enabling healthy communication. Communication goes beyond simply issuing an email memo from the top of the organization. Communication also serves a social purpose, especially when leading remotely. In other words, communication propels connection and collaboration but also is needed for basic efficiency. When face-to-face interaction is limited, communication can suffer. Below are three suggestions to help keep information flowing for remote teams:

1. Encourage Proactive Upstream Communication

Reduced communication, especially in terms of frequency, means that understanding who is contributing to which initiative can be challenging. What’s more, leaders who want to understand how employees are doing now lack the time to reach across the wider “digital hallway.” Similarly, employees may feel that their individual efforts go unnoticed. They may also wish to share findings from the front line but lack the structure to do so.

Encourage your team to proactively communicate with you and their team. In addition to social updates (well-being check-ins), help them report relevant and timely operational information on progress, roadblocks, and weekly lessons learned. There are technology tools that can help. For example, DecisionWise created the Manager Weekly Check-in Tool. It’s a free tool based on the 5-15 framework developed by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard. Technology can be a valuable tool in upstream communication, but whether the solution involves technology is less important than the idea that information (and, therefore, trust) is a two-way flow.

2. Cultivate Organic Information Sharing

Basic communication often flows organically—up, down, and across the organization. Colleagues encounter each other in the hall or stop after a meeting to collaborate on projects. These interactions are generally unplanned and unintentional, although extremely valuable on many fronts. Many of those informal interactions are now suddenly non-existent in a remote setup. Without these natural interactions, employees may hold onto questions and concerns or delay sharing ideas until the next structured encounter—or not bring them up at all.

In order to mitigate this loss of organic information sharing from direct reports, managers must make these previously unintentional interactions intentional. For example, we know of some leaders who hold “virtual open-door hours,” which involve optional call-in times, held on a regular basis. These managers leave a conference or video line open so that team members can easily hop on and share their feelings.

There is also something to be said for peer-to-peer touchpoints –– one author called it “serendipitous collaboration.” Recently, a colleague scheduled a short remote call with me to catch up on projects and maintain social connection. We shared ideas, benefited from connecting, and then went back to the day’s tasks. There are simple ways to reach out to colleagues in a spirit of “What are you working on? How can I help?” We often discover the solutions to our own issues just by talking them through with another person. This is not to say that we should drastically increase the count of weekly meetings. It is simply that a little effort to touch base can go a long way.

3. Lower the Social Cost of Speaking Up

“Does everyone agree?” We often hear this phrase just before the close of a meeting. This approach for building consensus and getting the best ideas may work when everyone is physically present and contextual clues and body language are easy to identify. When leading remote teams, however, louder voices will likely dominate those who exhibit a stronger preference for introversion. Additionally, managers can lose track of who hasn’t contributed to a conversation because team members aren’t within their customary line of sight. Without a prompt, some employees simply won’t risk “taking over the screen” and speaking up.

The concept of psychological safety play into all of this. Our current DecisionWise benchmark database suggests that one-third (34%) of employees indicate that they are “hesitant to speak up for fear of negative consequences.” That, in itself, is a problem. Compound this concept with the idea that online meetings tend to reduce interaction, and you can see the problem. Managers must be intentional in lowering the social cost of speaking up and be mindful that remote communication may naturally stack the deck against openly contributing to meetings.

To lower the social cost of speaking up over digital media, managers might encourage individuals to post comments in simultaneous text chats. Online voting and polling tools offer anonymous solutions for those who prefer a low-key approach. Keep in mind that more time for silence may be needed after asking a question to a remote audience than would otherwise be the case.

Encourage Energizing Connection

Leading remotely doesn’t just mean efficient information sharing. With basic communication in place, leaders can interact with teams in a way that drives a sense of belonging to something beyond one’s self. That sense of connection leads to greater engagement in the workplace. In fact, a Decisionwise analysis revealed the positive correlation between connection, as defined above, and employee engagement to be .83 (which, in layman’s terms, means that there is a strong relationship between feeling I belong to the organization and my overall engagement). This also means that employees who experience a sense of connection are far more likely to be productive, innovative, and remain with the organization. Here are three aspects of belonging and engagement to consider for leading remotely.

1. Maintain Regular Recognition

Without regular face-to-face interactions, and while in the throes of the current pandemic, employee recognition is more likely to slip. For remote teams, and especially those operating at high speeds, the communication that does take place is often limited to issues surrounding the work itself. Just as organic communication decreases in remote environments, so does the habit of recognizing the work and efforts of others.

Letting recognition slip can slow things down. One classic study showed a strong link between recognition and motivation, claiming it to be the second-highest intrinsic motivator for employees. Recognition is important from supervisor to direct report but may be of more value when coming from peers. Recognition is also closely tied to those core feelings of belonging and engagement mentioned above. Consider how a phone call only to offer recognition might help an employee feel engaged.

2. Manage Workload and Engagement

“Meaning” and “Impact” are two additional keys to engagement, as found by our engagement research and recent book, Engagement MAGIC (spoiler alert: these keys spell “MAGIC”– Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection). Engagement will drop when teams don’t feel their work has purpose or impact, or when there simply isn’t much to do. On the other hand, many employees report feeling over-stressed and near burnout.

Recently, a colleague shared the story of a client who, in an overwhelmed state, abruptly phoned his supervisor to say, “I quit!” Although the client ultimately chose to remain, the pressure had built up and exposed the underlying issue: severe stress, to the point of burnout. Such are the current circumstances of many who are silently suffering. Current pandemic concerns are hitting employees in their personal, non-work roles as well. In addition to wearing us out, such stress can lead to reduced effectiveness in our decision-making functions (when we need them most)! Being afraid of stress is not the answer, but managing severe stress is vital.

So, we have a bit of a conundrum to be aware of; too little meaningful work means disengagement, but too much can mean burnout. Being aware of that line between challenge (the “G” or “Growth” key in MAGIC) and stress is a critical skill for today’s leader, particularly with the inability to physically interact with employees multiple times a day.

Here’s Where to Start

While there are things we can do ourselves, in order to positively affect this aspect of engagement, supervisors play a decisive role. The right help begins with awareness of each team member’s current state. Compassionate awareness will lead to empowerment, delegation, reshuffling of tasks–whatever helps achieve rebalancing. Sometimes simply listening is the answer. When burdens cannot be lightened and tasks simply must be done reminders of the meaning of our work can help us find the wherewithal to press on.

But managers do face barriers to even being aware. Consider (1) the common fallacy that a supervisor’s most important contribution is his or her individual contribution (rather than working through the team); and (2) the remote status of teams, which can breed fewer one-on-one meetings and far less attention paid to overall engagement and workload. These and other forces can draw managers away from the people and mentoring dimension of their roles. Nevertheless, deliberate work to compassionately be aware of the workload and emotional states of employees will lead to a state of engagement and flow, not to mention longevity.

3. Trust Versus Command and Control

Finally, amidst the chaos of the present COVID-19 pandemic (and even before), some are asking whether old-school directive leadership models are more relevant than ever. We have heard this question arise in circumstances of confusion as teams adjust to new environments. Many current employees face completely novel issues; many are yearning for direction.

Leaders should consider providing more explicit instruction while facilitating quick decision-making to move things forward. Nevertheless, a command-like approach has potential long-term consequences. After all, who likes to be controlled? If employees perceive managers as mistrusting, they will likely not feel that they belong and consequently not fully engage in their work. On the other hand, our research tells us that trust and autonomy (the “A” in MAGIC) energize employees to use more of their discretionary thinking to accomplish their work.

Keep in mind, however, that autonomy fails without clear boundaries and expectations (on both sides). We refer to this as Expectation Alignment. Autonomy is not anarchy. Trust is not simply laissez-faire. Both trust and autonomy come via clear expectations. The goal is to grant autonomy while requiring accountability. To strike this balance we have seen instances when the aforementioned Manager Weekly Check-in Tool has helped. Another group we know of relies on daily check-in and coordination calls with the whole team (for which the team has been grateful). Whatever the approach, make it routine and direct (vs. subtly checking on employees to see what they’re up to). An indirect approach can communicate I don’t trust you—we have seen this approach lately too.

With more frequent check-ins, supervisors may feel they are bordering on micromanagement, but if done with transparency and in order to empower your team with direction, increased structure need not be mistrust or micromanagement.

Empower Success

Besides getting results, leading remotely calls for fresh thinking around how to get those results. Such thinking will include how to mitigate new barriers to communication. Remember that communication is also for spurring engagement and that managers will greatly benefit their teams as they cultivate belonging and connection. We have found repeatedly in our research that connection unlocks engagement, and thus increased innovation, organizational citizenship, and productivity. We are confident that success in our current circumstances will be achieved by the everyday work of individuals, working remotely, but empowered by their managers to solve our current challenges.

Infographic: Employee Engagement Vs. Satisfaction – What’s the Difference?

Download the PDF

Although satisfaction is essential, it’s only part of the employee engagement process. Learn the differences so you can cultivate highly engaged employees in your organization.

The Little Extra

Satisfaction is transactional. In return for their work, companies provide employees with the basics: compensation, tools and resources, physical safety, and respect to name a few.

Engagement is transformational. It contributes to peak experiences that make employees eager to give extra, discretionary effort.

It’s About Time

Satisfaction is about temporary happiness.

Engagement is about long-term feelings of purpose, belonging, growth, and personal accomplishment.

Shared Responsibility

Satisfaction is controlled by the organization.

Engagement is shared by the employer and employee, a 50-50 responsibility.

Show Me the Money

Satisfaction is expensive. Raises, perks, and office extras cost a lot of money.

Engagement can cost nothing but requires a conscious effort.

What’s My Motivation

Satisfaction is based on factors, which don’t necessarily motivate people but when taken away can cause them to be demotivated.

Engagement is about using the heart, spirit, hands, and mind.

More Than a Feeling

Satisfaction involves only feelings.

Engagement involves feelings as well, but also requires action.

To unlock the lasting power of employee engagement, these five ENGAGEMENT MAGIC elements are essential and should be cultivated within an organization:

Learn More About ENGAGEMENT MAGIC Training

When Engagement Replaces Satisfaction

What does it look like when engagement replaces satisfaction? Over the years I have had the opportunity to work with volunteers who do work in developing countries.  These volunteers—typically university students—dedicate up to three months each summer in leaving their comfortable, US-based surroundings to work in locations where poverty is the norm.  Their work may include bringing water to a small mountain village, working to prevent river blindness, teaching single mothers about nutrition, building latrines, or any number of other welfare and educational projects.

DecisionWise CEO Dr. Tracy Maylett (back center) working with a group from HELP International to bring water to Villachulucanas, Piura, Peru

These volunteers often live in unfamiliar conditions where, while not typically dangerous, they experience many of the hardships found in some parts of the world.  This may include limited access to clean water, less-than-ideal nutrition, dirty conditions, and crowded living spaces (during my last visit to Peru we had 19 young people squeezed into two small rooms on the upper floor of a small, concrete home).  These conditions were also similar to what I experienced in previous stays in Guatemala and El Salvador, yet these young people choose to do what they did.

Here we have 200+ students, all leaving the conveniences of life and family for a three-month period in order to work in conditions most of them have only seen on their 55-inch big-screen televisions or on their iPads.  And what’s really amazing… they pay to do this!  Each student is required to pay his/her own expenses, as well as part of the fees to support the projects in which they participate.

Let’s put this in perspective.  Suppose I go to your employees and say, “Team (because when we call them “team” it makes them feel better about what I’m about to ask of them), we’re going to change working conditions a bit.  First of all, you will pay me, rather than me paying you (I won’t break it to you yet that you’re going to put in some hard work and live in some pretty harsh conditions).”

Obviously, that ain’t gonna’ fly.  Perhaps a bit of a stretch to emphasize a point, but let’s consider the intent.  What makes 200 students willing to do what they do in this scenario?  I make it a point to continually ask that question of each of the volunteers, who inevitably respond with variations on a central theme: they are willing to temporarily overlook the “satisfaction elements” because they have chosen to be engaged in what they do.  They find meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection (M-A-G-I-C) in what they do.

Employee Engagement Differs from Satisfaction

Let’s take a look at why this is the case, by examining how employee engagement differs from satisfaction.  Certain elements must be present in order for me to be satisfied in my work.  These elements may include safety, basic levels of respect, tools to do the work, training, and even appropriate compensation.  However, these volunteers are willing to overlook these basic satisfaction elements for a temporary period (in this case, three months of the year) because the elements of engagement (ENGAGEMENT MAGIC) play a greater role for them than does the need for those things we generally consider factors that satisfy us in our work.

Are they satisfied?  Yes.  But not because what we consider “the basics” are in place.  They’re satisfied because they are engaged.

Satisfaction is a transactional, quid-pro-quo (you give me x and, in return, I give you y) relationship, with some strings attached.  With satisfaction, when I do something it’s because I know that I will receive something in exchange that makes my effort worth what I put into it.  Satisfaction elements are generally the “price of admission.”  We must have the tools we need to succeed.  Our compensation must be fair, and we must be treated with dignity and respect.  However, many companies stop there, assuming their employees will be engaged if each of these elements is in place.  Further, the more I, as an employer, provide these for you (“let’s bring in a foosball table and hot chocolate machine for every floor!”), the more you’ll be satisfied.  Right?  Not quite.

Download: Employee Satisfaction Survey

Engagement differs from satisfaction in that engagement involves the heart, hands, and mind of the employee (or volunteer), rather than the transactional relationship brought about by satisfaction factors.

Engagement occurs when the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC elements of engagement—meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection—are in place. The volunteers found ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® in what they did.

In the case of these students, each continually cited meaning (when the work has greater purpose beyond the task itself) and impact (when I can see the positive outcomes of my efforts) as primary reasons why they were involved in this work.

Not a single volunteer mentioned, “It pays well,” or “I like the foosball break room.” Obviously, not many of these satisfaction factors were present in their day-to-day working conditions.  Yet, many businesses today ignore engagement factors, and focus solely on satisfaction.   However, satisfaction factors do not bring hearts, hands, and minds into the game.

While satisfaction is important, it’s transactional, and reaches a point of diminishing returns.  Foosball tables and free drinks only go so far—and we must continue to outdo what we’ve already done.  Yet, as these volunteers can attest, MAGIC happens when we include hearts, hands, and minds.

These young volunteers were able to accomplish some pretty amazing things—and it was because they chose to do so.  What are your employees choosing?

5 Keys of Employee Engagement White Paper

Related Post: Stop Wasting Your Money on Employee Satisfaction
Related Post: Why Employee Satisfaction Does Not Always Result in Employee Engagement

What Employee Engagement Is Not

They're in the planning phase of their project

Many definitions are thrown around today to describe employee engagement.  Some of these definitions include references or similarities to other common organizational behavior terms, to the point where “engagement” has become a catchphrase that includes all the positive feelings and qualities that we want in employees.  If it’s a positive behavior, we lump it into the “engagement” category.  However, this creates a good deal of confusion as many try to define engagement for their particular organization.

Download Employee Engagement Survey Sample


So, let’s take a different approach.  Let’s address what employee engagement is not first:

  • Employee Engagement is not Satisfaction.  Satisfied employees are content with their pay, working environment, and the job they do.  Satisfaction must be in place for employees to be engaged (it’s the “price of admission”) but it does not cause an employee to be passionate about her job, nor does it cause an employee to throw his heart, hands, and mind into his work.
  • Employee Engagement is not Happiness.  Employees can be happy at work but not necessarily engaged in their work.  A fun working environment can contribute to engagement, but it may only make your employees happy without contributing to engagement.  We’ve seen plenty of employees who are happy with their jobs (think “Dude, it’s so easy . . . I don’t have to do anything but sit all day and watch YouTube”), but are not engaged in their work.
  • Employee Engagement is not Motivation. Motivation is a component or result of engagement in one’s work.  Engaged employees feel motivated to do their best because the conditions for engagement have been met.  Additionally, motivation does not always equate to action (I’m motivated to diet, but that sure doesn’t mean I’m going to).
  • Employee Engagement is not Empowerment. Autonomy or empowerment is a component of engagement, but some mistake being empowered with being left alone.  The opposite of this, of course, is to be powerless and micromanaged.  Empowerment also often ignores the fact that engagement is a choice.  While I may be empowered, once again, I may not act.

So what is engagement?  Let’s keep it simple: employee engagement is a state and a behavior that makes employees feel passionate about their work, and give their hearts, hands, and minds to that work; it leads to employees caring more and contributing more to their work and their companies; it is driven by experiencing meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection in one’s job.

Any other terms you would add to the list? How would you describe employee engagement?

Listen to Podcast: ENGAGEMENT MAGIC, Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement, Listen as David Mason, Ph.D. discusses the five essential ENGAGEMENT MAGIC keys (Meaning Autonomy Growth Impact Connection) that managers need to cultivate lasting employee engagement with their teams.

2016 State of Employee Engagement Report

Related Content: What is Employee Engagement?
Related Post: 7 Definitions of Employee Engagement
Related Post: 5 Research Studies on Employee Engagement
Related Webinar: ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: The Five Elements of Employee Engagement
Related Training: Engagement MAGIC® Training

Where Do You Fit On the Engagement Resistance Curve?

Gears and cogs

Employee engagement begins with the individual employee. If the organization, corporation, not-for-profit, university, sports team, what-have-you—is the entire organism, then each employee is like a single cell. Change may appear on the scale of an entire organism, but change begins at the level of the single cell. Let’s look at the process of growing a more deeply engaged organization by looking at the role that you, the employee—play in your own engagement.

Download employee engagement survey.

At this point, your position and title are irrelevant. Even if you occupy a glass-walled office in the C-suite, you are first and foremost an individual, working for the benefit of a wide range of stakeholders: your colleagues, shareholders, customers, and family members, to name a few. Even if you are at the managerial or executive level and have the power to shape and set organizational policy, your greatest impact on the level of employee engagement within your organization will be how engaged you are personally—how strongly you find ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®, meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection in where you work and whom you work with.

To that end, it’s worth reiterating a critical point about employee engagement: Being engaged is a choice.

Even if you are the policymaker, engagement doesn’t just happen. Remember, the organization’s job is to create the conditions optimal for its members to engage with their work, their mission, and each other. Once that fertile soil has been laid down, it is each individual’s responsibility to say, “Yes. I will trust, I will commit emotionally, and I will embrace opportunities to flourish in my organization.” It’s important to remember that engagement involves hearts, spirits, minds, and hands. This means that you must choose to both feel and act.

While some of the keys to engagement are based on innate qualities that are not always under your conscious control—you probably don’t have complete control of what you will find meaningful—how you choose to act on those stimuli is very much a conscious choice. That’s why, in any organization, all employees fall somewhere along what we call the, Engagement Resistance Curve.

Engagement Resistance Curve

Some individuals engage more easily and eagerly than others due to both innate personality characteristics (autotelic personality, high self-esteem) and learned behaviors (high levels of trust, past positive workplace experiences). Others engage grudgingly, if at all, due to the same factors, from poor self-esteem and cynicism to issues like undiagnosed anxiety disorders.

Simply put, some people are wired for engagement, while others aren’t. Most of us, however, fit somewhere between these two extremes. We choose to be engaged (or disengaged) based on the environment we are in and where we find the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®—meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection—in that environment. It’s a 50-50 proposition. The organization builds the ball field, and we choose to bring our hearts, spirits, minds, and hands to the game.

Most of us approach employee engagement with varying degrees of resistance. The engagement resistance curve doesn’t rank people’s current levels of engagement, but their propensity for becoming engaged. It looks like this:DecisionWise Engagement Resistance Curve

  • Auto-engaged (5%): This employee is innately inclined to find meaning, purpose, connection, and fulfillment in almost any work. She quickly and easily embraces organizational efforts to increase levels of engagement. She tends to be optimistic, confident, self-aware, and enthusiastic. In short, she will be engaged in nearly any environment.
  • Engagement optimal (20%): This employee does not engage as instantaneously as the auto-engaged employee, but he does not require a great deal of encouragement to do so. He will respond positively to organizational opportunities to engage, provided they are authentic and promises are backed by action. He also tends to be optimistic, confident, self-aware, and enthusiastic, if not on quite the same “walking on sunshine” level as the auto-engaged person.
  • Motivationally engaged (50%): Most of us will fall into this category. These employees are willing to engage if their motivational and satisfaction needs are met—if they are paid fairly, given appropriate perks, feel emotionally safe in their roles, shown potential paths of advancement, and so forth. They are not cheerleaders, nor are they saboteurs. They are potentially effective employees who can fully engage and deliver excellence under the right conditions.
  • Engagement hesitant (20%): This employee would rather not engage, but is not opposed to it, either. She is likely to regard her job as something that pays her expenses and nothing more, and she is likely to regard efforts at engagement with a jaundiced eye. Relationships with organizations are transactional—quid pro quo. She will respond to engagement efforts only if they are persistent and personal, and she tends to step in and out of engagement. She tends to be naturally somewhat jaded and pessimistic about work.
  • Auto-disengaged (5%): These are the lost causes, the people who are unlikely to engage regardless of what the organization does. This employee cannot view work as anything more than a paycheck, and he is likely to hold an adversarial view of his employer, whether that attitude is justified or not. He is likely to be cynical, suspicious toward his employer’s motives, and a negative, indifferent clock puncher.

Sometimes, if the conditions aren’t right for an individual to engage, that also means speaking up and saying, “This is what I need if I’m going to engage.”

So where do you fit on the Engagement Resistance Curve? Remember, you are responsible for your ability or inability to engage, regardless of your position within your organization or your organization’s efforts to “get employees engaged.” Engagement may be a 50-50 proposition between employer and employee, but the individual has as much power to drive employer engagement initiatives as the top decision makers do. Don’t wait for your employer to come to you, because doing so presupposes that your employer (1) understands engagement; (2) realizes that you and others are not engaged; and (3) knows the unique factors that will engage you, the individual.

Do you simply knock on your superior’s door, complain that you’re not feeling engaged, and demand (whether implicitly or directly) that he do something about it? Of course not. The process begins with YOU, not your employer. So where is your current engagement level? To find out try taking this online ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® Self-Assessment. It’s completely free and you will surely gain insight into how engaged you are, you’ll also have a much clearer idea of how engaged you wish to become and what to do about it.
Employee Engagement Survey

Finding Meaning and Connection at a Sod Laying Party

DecisionWise Team Laying Sod

Finding meaning and connection when it’s 100 degrees outside, one o’clock in the afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, and 38 pallets of sod are waiting to fill in an acre of land, isn’t necessarily ideal. If you haven’t laid sod before, just imagine lifting a couple thousand 20-pound slabs of pre-cut dirt and grass one by one and carefully placing them on the ground in a brick-stack pattern to create an instant yard. Not only is the sod heavy like thick rolls of carpet, but there is A LOT of it! And the heat! This may seem like a crazy idea to most but this is what the DecisionWise team did recently for one of our own…did I mention the heat? DecisionWise Laying Sod
At this time last year, I was eating lunch with my good friend and co-worker. It was just me and him at a small Mexican joint when he received a call from his wife. By the look on his face I could tell it must be something serious. He politely excused himself from the table and took the phone conversation outside. As I ate my food I watched him pacing back and forth outside the window. He had a deep crease in his brow indicating serious concern for whatever his wife was telling him. He returned to the table, picked up his food, and without explanation he was gone. I finished my meal wondering what the news could be. It would turn out to be worse than I thought.

I returned to my office and completed my work for the day not paying much attention to what had transpired earlier with my buddy at the Mexican restaurant. As I drove home I dialed his number to see if everything was all right, not knowing what to expect. He picked up and proceeded to tell me that his 7-month-old daughter had just been diagnosed with leukemia, cancer of the blood cells. My heart sank. My baby boy was the same age and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I didn’t even know children that young could be affected by cancer. What could I say or do that could ease the stress, pain, and worry? No one knew the journey that lay ahead, the long conversations with doctors trying to understand the sickness, the sleepless nights next to their sick child laying in a small hospital crib, the side effects from chemotherapy that can bring even the strongest of adults to their knees, and the constant, pounding stress. Since that day, many people have reached out to offer help and any type of assistance possible to my friend and his young family, and frankly that’s about all we can do.
Eleven months later, his daughter is still undergoing treatments that cause loss of hair and other painful and uncomfortable side effects. She has a difficult time keeping solid food in her body so she receives nutrition via a tube that she wears constantly. After all her small body has been through, she still maintains an infectious smile and the energy to want to play with her big sister outside on the grass under the big blue sky. One problem though, there is no grass. Well, not yet.

Using every spare moment where he was not in the hospital, my friend has worked tirelessly to get his yard prepped. Single-handedly installing a sprinkler system he now has a permanent trucker hat tan on his scalp. But I haven’t heard a single complaint as he prepared for the new grass his two daughters could enjoy together.

A week before the sod was to arrive, the DecisionWise team approached my friend with an offer: allow the team to come together and install the sod in his yard so his daughters could have an enjoyable place to play. And that’s exactly what we did. Twenty DecisionWise team members got work done early and changed into their grubby work DecisionWise Laying Sodclothes for an afternoon to serve one of our own. We gathered work gloves, wheelbarrows, hats, sunscreen, water, and of course pizza, and separated into assembly lines of sod layers. With sweat dripping, slab after slab of instant grass was laid in an organized manner until the entire front and back yards were green—ready to be played on by two young sisters. It was hard work, but it was our pleasure to be able to put our own teachings into practice, especially for one of our own team members and friends.

At DecisionWise, our team of consultants guide corporate leaders on how to lead staff and build successful teams. We even wrote the book on employee engagement, ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: Five Keys for Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations, in which we teach about meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection. Helping a sick child obviously taps into MEANING. But that wasn’t the only key in play that day. In just a few short hours, we went from a dust bowl to a lush yard; the IMPACT of our presence was unmistakable. Not to mention seeing the eyes of those sweet little girls. In fact, the CONNECTION with those girls, my friend and his wife, and all my colleagues sweating it out that day has gone through the roof. And you know what? Working for a company that gave us the AUTONOMY to take work off and help out both empowered me and increased my CONNECTION to it as well. Touching on all these ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® keys might explain why, despite the physically uncomfortable nature of the task, nothing but smiles shone through the dirt and sweat stained faces that day.

It was MEANING and CONNECTION, two of the five keys of employee engagement, which brought the DecisionWise team together that day. DecisionWise Team Laying SodMy friend and his wife were effusive in their gratitude to everyone for showing up and giving of their time and effort to help out that day. The DecisionWise team in turn thanked them for giving us the opportunity to serve, connect, and find a deeper meaning in our jobs. They received more than a yard and we received more than some time off of work.

It’s easy to show up for work every day and complete tasks, but that will never keep us authentically engaged. Finding meaning, making an impact, and building connections in both our job and with the PEOPLE we work with produce authentic lasting engagement.

Reverse Mentoring and Employee Engagement

During Jack Welch’s tenure at General Electric, he championed the concept of “reverse mentoring.” Reverse Mentoring is where more mature employees seek the advice of younger colleagues in effort to learn technology skills or to otherwise remain culturally relevant. I have been experiencing a bit of reverse mentoring here at DecisionWise, and it’s been eye-opening.

One of my responsibilities as COO at DecisionWise is to oversee our technology and underlying strategies. Like most growing organizations, we are constantly challenged to stay abreast on the latest technology in order to be disruptive, innovative, and provide value to our clients. The difficulty with technology is that it changes faster than Kim Kardashian’s wardrobe. So, I found myself constantly visiting with our development team in their “software lab” to discuss the latest tools and technology changes. Over time, I found myself focusing my attention on one of our younger developers, Micah. Micah is a self-proclaimed nerd, and a disciple of popular geek culture (i.e., think of The Big Bang Theory on television). He is also incredibly creative and talented.

Unbeknownst to Micah, he was quietly becoming my reverse mentor. I would pepper him with questions and “what if” scenarios on how our technology could maintain its quality and continue to serve our client’s needs, and he would calmly respond like a Hindu yogi. But, that’s not how it’s supposed to work, right? Being older, wiser, and possibly better looking (my opinion), it was up to me to dispense the wisdom of all things business.

In commenting on the power of reverse mentoring, Alan Webber, the co-founder of Fast Company, has noted, “It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way as the young twenty-something’s. They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future”.[2] Webber’s right. And Micah was, and is, helping us figure things out at DecisionWise.

As our talks increased, I learned that our relationship had an unanticipated consequence. Being my mentor was helping Micah’s engagement at DecisionWise. And this is where I want Micah to share his part of the story:

DecisionWise Micah WardellWhen Matt arrived at DecisionWise, I was closing in on my first year with the company. Just before Matt’s arrival, I was on vacation with my family on a beach in California. With work off my mind, I had some time to think about what I had accomplished in the past year and what the future looked like. When I looked back I saw many great accomplishments mixed with a few struggles. The people I work with are great, the services we offer are top-notch providing significant value to our clients and have the power to change people’s outlook in their jobs. Great stuff right?

However, I was struggling to get excited about work and tackling the next project. My engagement was fading. That’s an interesting position to be in while purportedly helping build a product that measures employee engagement.

I returned from vacation trying to get excited about where we were headed and embrace the strategy and roadmap that had been outlined. It was becoming difficult for me. I was looking for something that could help increase my engagement level. A couple days after returning from vacation we had a company meeting and the owner announced Matt as a new hire and COO of DecisionWise. I left the meeting feeling excited, hoping that his addition to the team was just the disruption I needed to help increase my personal engagement at work. Little did I know how far that would go.

The relationship that quickly formed between Matt and I really helped drive my engagement. As Matt started asking more questions about how to take our technology to the next level, I naturally went beyond simply answering them and started thinking bigger picture. My brain regularly fills with ideas and I saw how these could be aligned with our company’s strategy. I dug deeper into the questions he was asking and wanted to come back with solutions, not just answers to questions. Matt listened to my suggestions with genuine interest and began implementing them into the company.  I was able to offer advice and insight, and ultimately see the positive impact my ideas were having on the company. My engagement level naturally increased and I immediately recognized the importance of one of the essential keys to employee engagement, IMPACT. I now see a clearer and more exciting picture than I could sitting on a beach a couple months ago.

Now, Micah regularly stops by my office and our CEO’s office with new ideas to share. And, each visit is well worth our time. First of all, they are fun. Second, we engage in collaboration that is helping DecisionWise become even more innovative and competitive. Micah’s engagement is infectious, and we can see it helping others as well. At the end of the day, this post isn’t about me finding the right mentor, it’s about Micah’s engagement and his tremendous contributions to our team. Jack Welch was right. You are never too old to have a good mentor, and your mentor’s age, title, or position shouldn’t matter.

[1] Reverse Mentoring Cracks the Workplace, Leslie Kwoh, The Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2011.
[2] Reverse Mentoring: What it is and Why it is Beneficial, Lisa Quast, forbes.com, January 3, 2011.
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