Melissa Reitkopp blog image with soccer team in the background,
Careers, Communication, Uncategorized

Let’s Talk About Engagement

I’ve been immersed in a six-month anti-racism seminar through Leadership Greater Washington DC.  Because of the insights, information, and tough conversations it has motivated me to strive to be a better person and in the workplace to strive to be a better recruiter.  With my new awareness, I am more aware of my unconscious bias, seeing racism everywhere and gaining a better understanding of where and how to be an ally or “bias interrupter” as Professor Lisa Nishii describes it from Cornell’s ILR school.  I just finished my second of four courses toward my Cornell DEI certificate program.  Today I want to focus on engagement as a key ingredient to retaining talented staff and how this plays a role in diversifying our workplaces.  Both engagement and diversity strengthen organizations and yield higher performance for individuals and companies.  

Engagement – what it looks like

You can recognize an engaged person easily.  As a coach on the soccer field, I’d take an engaged, motivated person over a superstar any day of the week.  Engaged people care about what they are doing, they do more than is expected of them, and their genuine enthusiasm builds a stronger team spirit.  It’s motivational to the individual and to the group. Abby Wambach, Olympian, US Women’s Soccer leading goal soccer, writes in her book, “Wolfpack” about the necessity for women especially, to compete together rather than with each other for the good of the team.  This can be on the field, in the workplace, or on the board of an organization. 

Engagement – what we need to maintain it or get it

We can see when someone is engaged. Understanding why they’re engaged, how to maintain engagement, and how to get others engaged is crucial.  I often thought motivation came from inside a person and you can’t give it to people who don’t have it.  After learning more about the motivators, I think I will approach leading or coaching others to become engaged in a different way.  It’s so important for a manager to understand what motivates each person on their team to become engaged, remain engaged, and thus have great success for everyone.  

Psychological meaningfulness is what you get from the task at hand.  Does the job or responsibility have challenge?  Is it important if you complete the task or do it well?  Do you feel rewarded or get positive feedback from your actions?  Is there a match between interest, skills, and task?  When I take on the planning of our board/staff retreat, it’s because I want to help set the agenda.  I have strong feelings about what we need to work on and where we need to improve.  I also enjoy getting the details right, from making sure each person attending has some special swag and tasty food to make them feel loved to the content of the gathering.  I pay attention to what matters to each person to create a meaningful experience.  If leaders, managers, or coaches can align goals and needs that match a person’s skills/interests, we achieve psychological meaningfulness for all.

Psychological safety is when each person feels valued, trusted, and has equal respect.  A leader can set up an environment where there is transparency that enables each person to bring their genuine self to work.  When I’m feeling safe and not vulnerable I am able to act differently, share ideas more readily, and even fail.  I remember vividly a moment with my leadership cohort when I threw out a random idea for a class name.  It was really out there but came to me during an improv activity with the group.  I not only blurted out the idea but made a graphic and explained why it was a good idea.  The group definitely had mixed responses and there were some laughs about the silliness of the idea.  Yes, I was disappointed, but I didn’t retreat, and I didn’t withdraw or stop contributing.  This was a result of feeling safe and respected by my classmates and not made to feel like I had three heads and a tail.  When we create an environment where each member of the team, the organization, or the board feels truly safe, then we will retain their engagement and have better outcomes.  We can even learn from our failures.

Psychological availability describes physical and emotional resources to get a job done.  I didn’t think much about this before, but having more life experiences, I now understand.  During COVID with so many working parents juggling jobs and kids doing virtual school, there is a mental weariness.  If we don’t recognize the impact, even though we have found a “new normal,” we will lose engagement.   Consider scheduling a typical morning meeting.  Some employees will just not be available for those early morning meetings when they have to get their kids set up for school.  If we don’t think about our planning or demands from the job in a different way, we are not providing people with the physical resources they need to juggle work and a pandemic.  

Without the physical space, we traditionally have to go to an office or return home, we no longer have natural buffers or places to renew.  It’s super important to build different work schedules so that employees can find time to exercise or meditate during these trying times so we can be focused and productive when we are “at work.”  

The second part of psychological availability is investing in our teams with professional development, ongoing support, or feedback.  By giving someone tools to do their job well, it increases their ability to successfully complete any given task.  When I work with candidates for a job, I always help them prep for an interview.  This calms people, makes them realize they have a lot of valuable skills to share, and gives them more confidence when they are in the actual meeting. I enjoy setting someone up for success.

Engagement = Positive Performance

My daughter’s high school soccer coach played varsity baseball in college and won 5 straight state championships.  He was also a guidance counselor at a rival high school.  He didn’t win because of his knowledge of the game (and yes, he knew more than the basics).  He won because he recruited/attracted/retained elite travel players to his program.  He focused on team building, he built a system of seniors and juniors adopting the freshman and sophomores.  He had a “secret psych” program where the kids would make or buy small gifts for each other before each match.  Often my daughter would spend more time on decorating a t-shirt for a teammate than her homework.  He built a dynasty that every female soccer player wanted to be part of because there was meaningfulness, safety, and availability.  Each person played a vital role, on or off the field, their voices were heard, their mental and physical well being was cared for.  They weren’t always the most talented, but their engagement was light years beyond other teams and that made all the difference in the outcome.  Invest in engagement, it will bring huge success to any organization.

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