Recognize – Engager Dynamic #8

When was the last time you were recognized for doing a good job at work? The answer to that question and the emotions it brings up are all that needs to be said about the importance of this topic. I’ve taken the liberty to write a little bit longer on this one. I hope you’ll find it useful.

Word Nerd Alert

“Consequence” is an interesting word. It means “the result or effect of an action or condition.” It also means, “the importance or relevance of something.” If you put those two meanings together you will understand the power of this Engager Dynamic – Recognize. Actions have consequences; effects and relative importance. At work we can help people understand the importance of their actions and promote those important actions by controlling the results through recognition.

“Recognize” means “to acknowledge the existence, validity, or legality of something.” It also means, “to identify (someone or something) from having encountered them before; know again.” These two meanings together also add to the power of recognition at work. people want to be doing important things but they also want to be known.

One day my youngest daughter saw me wearing a new shirt. She liked it on me and said, “Hey, nice shirt, Dad! I see you.” That phrase, “I see you,” caught my attention. I thought it was cool, but I also wondered where it came from. It turns out there is some pop culture that references the phrase, but I believe its roots are in an African expression from the Zulu people. Sawubona is a Zulu phrase that means, “I see you.” It is more profound that just physical seeing. It has to do with recognizing the deep significance of the other person. Can you imagine the power of that kind of recognition at work?

A Recognition-Rich Environment

How often should people be recognized? If you think about what we just said, the real question is, “When would you ever not recognize someone?” But, in terms of a work-related recognition program, a good rule of thumb is about once a week. Here’s why: Whenever a person does something, there are consequences. Those consequences will affect whether they engage in that behavior again. We know that to get the result or consequence we want, we will repeat the behavior that led to that result. Frequent recognition will encourage the behavior that produces it.

Rules of Recognition

Recognition needs to be Specific. It’s one thing to say, “Great job!” and mean it. But, it is much more meaningful to tell someone specifically what they did and why it was so important. “Rob, great job cleaning that floor, the customer noticed how shiny it was and said, ‘it hasn’t looked that good in years’. You’re really helping us build a great relationship with this customer. Thank you.”

Recognition should also be Predictable. Certainly, if I receive corrective action for bad work or mistakes but never receive recognition for good work that will be demoralizing. Or, if I’m working hard and I get recognition one time and not another time that leaves me confused about my work. Recognition should be predictable enough that it helps people understand the standard and desire to go above and beyond. I should know what a good job looks like because my supervisor has told me enough times.

Recognition should be Frequent. As mentioned above, we should give recognition at least once per week. When you include “formal” recognition (awards, achievement of status, etc.) and “informal” recognition (verbal, a hand written note of thanks, etc.) it should be even more often.

Recognition should be Instantaneous. We want to reinforce behaviors as immediately as we can. This associates the award more directly with the desired outcome or achievement. If we wait for a month before giving recognition it can seem anti-climactic and be counterproductive. It can actually discourage someone from repeating the behavior. The thinking is, “If I have to wait so long it must not be that important.”

Make it Personal

In their book, First, Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, the authors say one of the rules Great Manager break constantly is the “Golden Rule.” That rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But, the authors argue, the World’s Greatest Managers recognize that people are different. What you want, in the way of recognition for example, may be completely different from what one of your employees wants.

Have you ever heard of the “5 Love Languages”? Gary Chapman wrote a book called, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret of Love That Will Last. It’s a book primarily focused on marriage but the principles are true for any interpersonal interaction. For our purposes, we’re looking at how to communicate recognition in meaningful ways.

In the book, Mr. Chapman says “Love” is communicated in many different ways. Like people speaking different languages, if I don’t understand the words you’re saying I won’t know whether you’re saying, “I love you,” or, “That’s a funny hat you’re wearing.” The message has to be communicated in a language the hearer understands. The responsibility for proper communication rests on the one delivering the message. As the title suggests, Gary identifies 5 “Love Languages;” five different ways people understand and communicate Love. They are:

  1. Quality Time
  2. Gifts
  3. Physical Touch (for our purposes, a hand shake or high 5)
  4. Words of Affirmation
  5. Acts of Service
We tend to communicate in the language we understand. So, If someone feels loved when a person gives them words of affirmation they will tend to use the same language when wanting to communicate love to someone else. But, if that person speaks in the language of Gifts, they may totally miss the message that the first person wanted to deliver. We need to understand how other people receive “love” in order to give meaningful recognition.

An Example

My brother-in-law once told his boss, “Praise doesn’t pay the bills.” He’s good at almost everything he decides to do but he’s not the type of person who thrives on being told he’s good at it. It’s not his love language. Based on his statement, what do you think would have been more meaningful to him? He would have responded better to some kind of financial reward. There are people, on the other hand, who would have the opposite response. They would feel slighted by a cash reward because they feel valued by other expressions, maybe lunch with the boss.

In other words recognition doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be “one-size-fits-all”. We need to give recognition, but we’re better off not doing it than doing it half-heartedly. Make it personal so it’s more meaningful.

Welcome Aboard!

A few years ago my family and I went on a cruise. It was a Disney cruise and the first cruise we’d ever taken. We didn’t have any idea what to expect. I remember how amazing it was to drive up and see that huge ship sitting at the dock ready to board. Everything about it seemed grand from the physical size of the ship to the building you walked into on your way to board. It had a scale cut-away model of the ship inside that was pretty cool.

It was what happened when we boarded, though, that set the tone for the whole experience. As my family boarded the ship into this beautiful entrance there were lines of uniformed crew on either side of us creating a path to direct us. Someone announced, “The Thomason family.” I don’t even remember how they would have known who we were but, when that was announced,  the crew began to applaud and cheer. Talk about saying, “Welcome Aboard!” I’d never seen anything like it. That was the beginning of a “magical” Disney cruise experience for us.

“On-Boarding” at Work

I’ve often thought about that experience as an analogy to how we “on-board” new employees in our organizations. We actually use that term. I wonder how many organizations use the Disney approach. A successful on-boarding experience should:

  1. Make the new employee feel like the entire organization is glad they have arrived
  2. Set a tone of expectation that will make them feel excited about their new job
  3. Guide them toward a successful experience on their career journey

I had a client who really got this. The organization was a large health care system. Every month they had a New Employee Orientation (NEO). The first day was a big event for all new hires in the Region. They brought everyone together at a nice hotel in the Regional Headquarters town where they had rented the grand ballroom. There was a beautiful breakfast buffet set up and the room was decorated in a way that gave a real celebration vibe. There were round tables set up and a stage in front with a large screen behind it.

The day consisted of a combination of speakers, videos, and interactive activities. New employees learned about the history of the organization. They heard about how the organization gives back to the community, about who the leaders are and a host of other useful information. Besides what new employees learned during that event, the main point was they felt special in being welcomed into this great organization.

More Than a Welcome

Another thing this client realized is that a well done “Welcome Aboard!” serves another purpose. It not only sets a positive tone for the employee’s career experience, it also sets some pretty high expectations and there are two sides to that coin. On the one hand, the new employee will be expecting great things from the organization like the magical cruise experience we had. On the other hand, the employee will be thinking, “This organization really has it together, I had better bring my A+ game.” Who wouldn’t want that from a new employee?

Someone has said that a person forms an opinion of you within the first 7 seconds of meeting you. The same is true for organizations. You don’t have to go all out like the Healthcare system. But neither should your on-boarding be someone Saying, “Sit here and read from the employee handbook until I come back.” How does your organization do it?

Qualitize – Engager Dynamic #7

“Qualitize” is a word, at least you can find it in the “Urban Dictionary” (be careful what you look up there). It means “To Improve something, to make it Quality.” By that definition it’s the perfect description of our next Engager Dynamic.


Every organization is concerned with Quality. They have set standards by which they measure their products and/or services and/or processes. People are measured against certain behavioral and performance norms. Teams and departments have goals and metrics against which their performance is measured. Quality is about measuring actual things as compared to something else, usually an accepted standard. Quality, then, is the degree of excellence something or someone has compared to that standard.

Quality relates to Employee Engagement in that people want to be part of something they can be proud of. It goes a little deeper than just the overall quality of the product or service, though. People want to be part of a group (team, line, department, etc.) where they can count on every member to produce excellent work. For this reason the boss who is an Engager makes sure of three rules regarding Quality:

  1. Clear Definition – the boss makes sure the standard by which Quality is measured is clear. S/he could use pictures of excellent work, displays, written descriptions, videos, etc. They may want to use a combination of these to be sure everyone is perfectly clear on the definition of “Excellent” work. What does it look like? Make sure the standards are high, standards that will cause people to stretch. Remember, the standard you walk past is the standard you set.

  2. Consistent Standards – in order for Quality to be an engagement factor the standard has to be the same for everyone. This is an area where the intention to engage can go off the rails pretty quickly. Differing standards is a huge dis-engager for people. Any whiff of favoritism will send excellent performers away holding their noses.

  3. Equal Accountability – this is closely related to number 2. Not only do the standards have to be the same for everyone. Every one has to be equally held to those standards. One of the most dis-engaging things a boss can do is let “slackers” get away with not holding up the standard. A boss who writes one person up for poor quality but lets another person get by with the same low quality is being incredibly disrespectful to the people who do excellent work.

On the other hand, when the standards are clear and consistent and when everyone is held equally accountable, each person’s performance tends to improve. It’s like when a good player is on a mediocre team. They may stand out and have good stats. But, if they move to a great team where other players are as good or better than them, they become better players. That’s the effect of engagement.


If you’re new to your role or you realize your approach to quality has been a dis-engager, take heart, you can make a positive impact on employee engagement. Try using the Engager Dynamic Solicit  to identify two or three things that need improvement, things you could easily work on – low hanging fruit as they say. Work quickly to improve those areas. That’s what it means to “Qualitize,” to improve something, to make it Quality. If you do that, keeping in mind the three rules above, you will be an engager. There will be skepticism initially if quality has been dis-engaging in the past. There may even be resistance because people don’t like change, even good change sometimes. But, hang in there, if you remain consistent, they will come around and morale will improve and so will your quality scores because your people will be engaged.

Solicit – Engager Dynamic #6

Have you ever felt insignificant or irrelevant? How did you like it? That feeling is a real dis-engager in the workplace. Someone may believe their company is doing inspiring work or producing a useful product but still feel they are an insignificant part of the “machine.” One important way an Engager can help people recognize their significance is to listen to their ideas. No one has the whole picture of the big picture. We often have people working in our organizations who have been there for over 30 years. Those people can be valuable. They have incredible institutional knowledge of how things have been done in the past; what has been tried and worked, or not worked. On the other hand, long time employees can also fall into the “7-deadly-word-syndrome”, “We Never Did It That Way Before.” That’s another issue.

Where Do the Best Ideas Come From?

Regardless of how long they’ve been working there, who usually has the best knowledge of what it takes to get a job done? Isn’t it usually the front line worker who is doing the job every day? Many times, these folks have lots of ideas about how to do a job more efficiently or more safely, often they don’t share them because they feel no one would want to listen to them.

How can we cultivate a culture of fresh ideas? They don’t always have to be about efficiency (but they might be), they could be about how to celebrate something more meaningfully, or how to improve communication on a certain issue, or about marketing to a certain demographic more effectively. The best way to find good ideas is to ask. Solicit ideas from your employees during tool box meetings (or whatever you may call a start of shift or beginning of day meetings) and when you’re walking around. Regularly ask your employees, “How could we do _______ better?”

Close the Loop

When one of your employees comes up with an idea that you implement be sure to give credit where credit is due. Taking credit for someone else’s idea ruins morale and disengages your employees. On the other hand, when credit is given to the person who came up with the idea two things happen. First, others are encouraged to contribute ideas they have because they believe something may actually come of it. Second, employees will be more engaged in their work because they have helped to make the job better.

Inspire – Engager Dynamic #5

You may have heard a version of the story I call the “Quarry Story.” The way I heard it was, back in the day when stones were cut by hand in the building process, a man walked through a quarry and asked three of the stone cutters the same question, “What are you doing?” The first, with a look that questioned the man’s eyesight, said, “I’m cutting rocks, what does it look like?” The second, replied, “I’m making a living for my family.” When asked the same question, the third stone cutter looked up with an enthusiastic smile and said, “I’m building a cathedral!”
Which of these stone cutters would you say was engaged in their work? The third? I would. You might ask, “So what?” “What difference does it make if he’s engaged?” Well, let’s speculate beyond the scope of the story and ask, whose stones, do you think, were of higher quality?  My gut tells me it would be the third guy’s. And who do you think cut the most stones?  Again, probably the third guy. What is it about the third stone cutter that makes us believe he would cut better stones and more of them? In a word, Inspiration.

Word Nerd Alert

We hear a lot about Motivation. I’m talking about something more than that. Check out the definitions of each . . . (though they appear on the list of synonyms for each other, they are not the same)
  1. provide (someone) with a motive (reason) for doing something.
    “she was primarily motivated by the desire for profit”
    • stimulate (someone’s) interest in or enthusiasm for doing something.
      “I’m going to motivate kids to study civics”
  1. fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.“his passion for romantic literature inspired him to begin writing”
  2. create (a feeling, especially a positive one) in a person.“their past record does not inspire confidence”
  3. animate someone with (such a feeling).“he inspired his students with a vision of freedom”
  4. give rise to.“the movie was successful enough to inspire a sequel”
To Motivate is to give someone a reason. Most of the time we’re talking about an external reason like a reward (money, recognition) or a punishment (disciplinary action, being fired). To Inspire is to “fill someone with the urge . . .” It speaks of internal drive. If you check out the previous link you’ll see that “Transcendent Purpose” is one of three main internal drivers. Linking our work to a purpose bigger and more important than ourselves is what inspires people. In the Quarry Story the stone cutter who said he was, “Building a Cathedral” saw his job as a critical part of something bigger and more important than himself. He was Inspired. Because he was inspired, he was engaged. Because he was engaged, he was far more likely to be more productive and produce a higher quality product.

What’s Your Inspiration?

You might be thinking, “Our jobs are not that inspiring.” Don’t be so sure. Maybe you work on the production or shipping line in a commercial bakery. You’re not just packing hot dog buns, you’re feeding southern Texas (or whatever part of the country or world your product serves). Maybe you work as a housekeeper in a medical facility. You’re not just cleaning patient toilets. You’re saving lives. Or, maybe you work for a company with a social mission statement and whatever you do you’re providing jobs for people with disabilities (or whatever the mission is).
The point is that a leader who is an Engager is able to Inspire their people. They connect the daily tasks to the overall purpose of the organization and the purpose of the organization to something bigger. The Engager starts from the very first day of employment. From “Welcome Aboard” through training and every day after, Inspiration is the engine that drives the organization.
What’s your inspiration?

Cultivate – Engager Dynamic #4

Death Valley, CA is normally the hottest, driest, lowest point in North America where steady drought and record summer heat make it a land of extremes. The ground usually looks like the surface of the moon. It’s called “Death Valley” but it isn’t really dead. It’s dormant. Below the hard, cracked surface lies potential. The seeds of beauty wait patiently for conditions to be right. During those rare years when the right amount of rain falls with the right frequency in the right seasons, when the warmth of the sun allows for root systems to sprout and when harsh drying winds do not blow through to kill off the sprouts, vast fields of wildflowers bloom in breathtaking display. The life is there. The Beauty is there, waiting.

People Are The Same

No matter how hard or soft the surface may appear, there is untold potential beneath that surface in any person. Like the Death Valley wildflowers, that potential usually sits dormant, waiting for conditions to be just right for it to blossom. Unfortunately, in many organizations, the right conditions for that growth are more rare than they are in Death Valley. The leaders we call Engagers know how to create those conditions through the Dynamic we call “Cultivate.”

To “Cultivate” is to prepare land for crops and to foster the growth of plants, ideas, character, reputation, etc. With this dynamic, the engager stimulates growth in the people for whom they are responsible.

It’s About More Than The Work

We’re not just talking about career or work growth; people want to grow in their personal lives. I remember a manager who worked for the same company as me several years ago. He managed a contracted service where the employees worked for our company and the client paid a monthly fee for the services. He had hundreds of employees. They all made minimum wage with no prospect of increases due to the nature of the customer’s business. Most of those employees would have walked through walls for that manager. They came to work, they did a great job and they were loyal. Why? Because when they came to work for him they became better people. They grew personally. He brought in experts to teach classes on personal finances, he provided classes to improve the employee’s English or to gain computer skills. Things like that showed how much he valued the employees as people and they truly appreciated what they gained personally from that work environment.

More Than A Paycheck

We all want to contribute to our work’s Mission and Vision, but we also want our work to contribute to our personal growth and learning. How does my work make me a better, more rounded, more prepared person? One example is Safety. Often things we learn about safety at work transfer to our personal lives and help keep us safe at home. One of my clients was very concerned about cyber security and required an annual “Anti-Phishing” training of all their employees. Employees always commented afterward that what they had learned would help them protect themselves against fraud in their personal lives.

What Does Growth Mean?

Growth may need to be defined. For some it may mean taking classes (English as a second language, finance, computer skills, etc). For others, it may mean the chance to work on special projects whether work related or helping the organization be a good corporate citizen.

Cultivate is a connector dynamic because it says, “You are not just a number or a pair of hands to us. You are a valuable person.” The return is often increased loyalty to the leader and organization and an increased desire to help them grow in return.”

Equip – Engager Dynamic #3

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That quote is attributed to Abraham Maslow from his 1966 book, The Psychology of Science.

Maslow’s quote has been interpreted as follows:

  1. With limited tools, single-minded people apply them inappropriately or indiscriminately
  2. If a person is familiar with a certain, single subject, or has with them a certain, single instrument, they may have a confirmation bias to believe that it is the answer to/involved in everything.

The Right Tools

Have you ever tried to paint a wall with a hammer? Hopefully not! Inversely, have you ever tried to drive a nail with a paint brush? You get the idea. I have driven a nail with a rock before. That’s ingenuity! It’s also what people resort to when they don’t have the proper tools or equipment. I haven’t been able to find a number describing how much time and property has been wasted in organizations due to lack of tools or improper use of tools. If you find one, please let me know. But, can you imagine it?

So, our next Engager Dynamic is “Equip.” To “Equip” simply means

  1. to supply with the necessary items for a particular purpose, and
  2. to prepare (someone) mentally for a particular purpose or task.
Both definitions imply that the equipping is done by someone for someone else. Guess who? The Engager, the boss is responsible to equip their team.

What Do They Need?

What tools or equipment are required for the various jobs on your team? It could be anything from PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to sophisticated machinery depending on the complexity of the job. But there are other kinds of tools and equipment such as access to systems and people, communication devices, etc. It is the responsibility of the organization in general and the boss in particular to ensure their people have these tools (and that they are in proper working order).

What about that second definition of “Equip,” the one that talks about preparing someone mentally? What does that look like? Some of it may have been covered under Training, but there is more. One critical thing that comes to mind is preparing your team members to thrive within the particular culture of your organization. If you’ve ever lived outside your home culture, you know what a challenge it can be to learn new customs. If you haven’t lived outside your home culture, think about your first week or month on a new job. How many times did you think, “I wish someone had told me we were supposed to (or not supposed to) do that?” Another way to help prepare people mentally will be covered under the Engager Dynamic called “Inspire.” Watch for that post later.

It’s a Challenge!

In my leadership matrix where I list six of the Engager Dynamics on the Connector Axis and six on the Challenger axis, Equip is listed on Challenger. Why? Well, not equipping someone is the same as saying, “We’re not all that serious about our expectations.” Also, you are providing an excuse for under performance. How many times have we heard people say, “I don’t have the right tools so I can’t do the work?”

Equipping someone says, “we’ve invested the time and resources to make sure you know what is expected from you and to train you how to meet those expectations. Now we’ve given you the precise tools to be successful, the ball is in your court.” That’s a challenge.

Train – Engager Dynamic #2

I can lay out clear expectations, be consistent with them and get all that right, but if my people don’t know the skills or how to perform the work they will never meet those expectations. So, the next Engager Dynamic is Training people how to meet your expectations.

An Example

Let’s use an acute care Hospital Environmental Services (housekeeping) department as an example. One of the responsibilities in this department is to clean the patient room after the patient has gone home to prepare it for the next patient. This is called a “Discharge Clean.” Now, I can explain the expectations; the room will look a certain way (even show a picture) when it’s done, it will pass a 14 point cleanliness inspection, and be completed within 30 minutes. Those are pretty clear, specific expectations. Everyone in the department would have to meet the same expectations so they are consistent. But, if I just communicate the expectations and walk away the employee will never be able to meet them. They don’t know how to perform the tasks and processes necessary to meet those expectations. I have to train them.

Step by Step

Early in my career I learned a 5-step training process that has served this dynamic well. The steps are as follows.

1. Tell Them – In this step you verbally explain everything needed to do the job. This will include the names of equipment, the tools necessary, how to operate them. Also important in this step is to explain why each step in this job is necessary and how this task contributes to the overall success of the company. You verbally walk the employee through each step in the process explaining tasks along the way.

2. Show Them – In this step you demonstrate what you have explained verbally. This can be done with training videos or in person. I prefer to do it in person in the environment where the employee will actually perform the work. You can have a skilled employee demonstrate the process and steps while you narrate or you can demonstrate yourself providing narration as you go.

3. Do it With Them – Here you will perform the job while the employee mimics you alongside. As you go through this step be sure to reinforce not only what needs to be done but also why and how it fits into the overall success of the company. This will provide memory pegs that will aid in learning and is also part of another Engager Dynamic called “Inspire” that we’ll discuss later.

4. Watch Them – In this step the employee performs the job by themselves while you observe. During this step ask questions to guide the employee if they are struggling and/or to continue reinforcing the whole learning process. It’s particularly helpful to ask questions about why each step is done

5. Have Them Teach You – In this step you switch roles. You have the employee pretend you are a new employee and they are the trainer. Have them teach you what they have learned. They should be able to go through the same process with you that you have gone through with them.

This is a basic training outline. Depending upon the complexity of the job, the prerequisite education or skills for the job, the learning pace of each employee, the amount of autonomy in the job, and other factors, this process could take hours, days, or weeks. You may need to go through the process more than once or repeat certain steps. It’s sometimes a good idea to break the steps up over a few days in order to help entrench the learning. Training is never a one-and-done proposition. In fact, one of the definitions of “Train” is,

“To teach (a person or animal) a particular skill or type of behavior through practice and instruction over a period of time.”

Once this outlined process has been completed, competence should be tested by you, the leader and cross-checked by another leader or skilled employee within two weeks and again at 30 days to assure the employee has learned the job.

Mistakes to Avoid

Leaders often make two critical mistakes when it comes to this Engager Dynamic. One of those mistakes is to rush the training process. Often we need the person up and running immediately so the temptation is to run them through some form of training, assume they’ve got it and send them on their way. Training is what Steven Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, called a Quadrant 2 activity. It is extremely important but not urgent in the same way as a ringing phone or getting to a meeting on time or someone stopping by to ask a question seems urgent. Do not let anything distract you from investing the necessary time and effort into training. It will pay dividends in the long run by preventing errors that could cost a lot of time and money.

A second critical mistake is to delegate the teaching entirely to someone else. This dynamic is listed on the Connector axis of the Leadership matrix. That is for a couple of reasons. First, when a company invests the time, money, and effort into a robust training program for both new hires and for continuing growth (see Engager Dynamic “Cultivate” –  coming soon) of existing employees, the message is “This is a great company; we believe in you and are glad you’re here.” This goes a long way in helping employees feel connected to the company and it’s values and purpose. The second reason Teaching is listed under Connection is that the time invested directly by the leader is the first real opportunity to develop a connection with the new employee. Leaders who are Engagers recognize the value of that connection and devote the necessary time to their people.

Think of It This Way

Another definition of “Train” is “To point or aim something (typically a gun or camera) at.” Think of it this way, when you take the time to properly train someone, you’re aiming them (and your organization) at success.

Expect – Engager Dynamic #1

“Expectation is the root of all heartache,” someone has said. I would agree with one clarification. It is unmet expectation that causes all heartache. It’s true in marriage, family, work, community, politics, etc. To go a step further, one of the most toxic killers in any relationship is unspoken expectations. Not meeting an expectation is one thing. Not knowing what the expectation is and then learning you didn’t meet it can be devastating.

Word Nerd Alert

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary an Expectation is

    “A feeling or belief about how successful or good someone or something will (should) be.”

 An Exercise in Unmet Expectations

I’ve taught this material in a classroom setting, I like to ask the group to take out a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. I then ask them to put their name at the top of the paper and explain that I want to go through an important exercise with them. Then I tell them that the exercise is foundational to understanding the Engager Dynamics and have them number down the left side of the paper from 1 – 10. I explain that they have three minutes to complete the exercise. Then I tell them to begin.

What’s wrong with this exercise? There are no instructions, no expectations have been set. People don’t have any idea what I want them to do. They believe it’s important. They figure that I want 10 of something and they know the timeline. But, what in the world do I expect them to write? They haven’t a clue! You should see the reactions I get to this stress, and it’s artificially induced. Imagine the stress of a similar situation in real life . . . or maybe you don’t have to imagine.

A Real Life Example

I recently stopped at the drive-through of a well-known fast food restaurant for a cup of coffee. I waited for several minutes and the line didn’t move. Still wanting that cup of coffee, I decided to go inside. The scene inside was tense. Many people were waiting for food or to place their order. People in the back were working but things weren’t flowing and there was frustration in the air. A young woman whom I assume was the shift manager turned from the drive through window and said to the crew in the back, “C’mon you guys!” That was it, “C’mon you guys!” Nothing changed. I did eventually get my cup of coffee but it took way too long.

When the shift manager issued her exasperated rebuke, the looks on her colleague’s faces said, “What do you expect us to do?” There it is. What was the expectation? That was a real-life example of my staged exercise where unclear or missing expectations create stress.

What Do You Do?

The job of the Leader is to set clear expectations and make sure all employees know what the expectations are. Some examples include:

  • What Skills do you expect employees to have or gain?
  • What Duties do you expect the employees to perform?
  • What are the quality and timeline expectations?
  • What attitudes do you expect the employees to have toward each other, toward customers, the company, the boss?
  • What else do you expect? (e.g. do all your employees give you a “high five” when they see you? If so, will you expect that of new employees? If s/he doesn’t give you a “high five” will you be offended and think poorly of the new hires? It may sound silly, but that’s a real life example and these are the kinds of subtle things that can fall into the category of unspoken expectations. Be sure you’re self-aware)
How do you communicate your expectations?

  • Job descriptions
  • Duty Lists
  • During Training
  • Employee handbooks
  • Policies and Procedures manuals
  • Posters
  • Verbally
It is not enough to simply tell an employee about an expectation once and leave it at that. People need to hear a thing 3 – 7 times, preferably through different media, before it will really sink in. Communicate, communicate, and communicate. It is also very important to be consistent in your communication. Send the same message to each employee.

Setting clear Expectations that are communicated effectively and consistently will pay dividends on employee engagement not only for its own sake but also when it comes to Performance Evaluations and Trust. Both of these are critical Engager Dynamics we will discuss later. Expectations impact them both.

A Word About Barriers

Expectations can remain unmet for several reasons. For example, someone attempting to meet an expectation could be blocked by a co-worker, by broken or missing equipment or even by a policy that conflicts with the expected outcome. The result of blocked attempts to meet an expectation is frustration. Or, as in the examples above, expectations could be unclear causing anxiety among the workers. Failure to meet expectations causes discouragement which lowers morale. On the other hand, when expectations are clearly understood and met or exceeded, engagement occurs and morale improves.

Flip the Coin

Most conversations about expectations at work revolve around making sure employees know and meet (or exceed) the expectations of the company and their boss. Remember, employees have expectations, too. They have expectations about their co-workers, their relationship with the boss, the value of their work, etc. One of the best ways to engage employees around expectations is to exceed their’s.



Whenever I interview someone who’s applying for a job I always ask a set of specific attitude questions. Whether the person is interviewing for a senior management position or for an entry level position, one question I always ask is “Could you tell me about your best boss?” You learn an awful lot about a person from their answer to that question. You learn about their attitude toward authority and leadership in general. You learn about how they define “good” and “best”. You learn about how they define “leadership”. You learn about how they prefer to be managed.

These insights can be very helpful in a hiring decision. For example, if someone’s best boss was a person who managed them very closely so they always knew what the next step was, but the position I’m looking to fill requires that a person be able to work independently for a long period of time, the chances are good this candidate is not a fit.

What About the Worst?

I also ask the opposite question, “Could you tell me about your worst boss?” Also very revealing. An interesting thing about the answers I’ve heard to those questions, again whether entry level or leadership level, is that they include statements about how that boss made them feel. “I felt like I was being scrutinized and criticized at every turn.” “She gave me the freedom to ‘fail forward fast.'” From which category, best boss or worst boss, do you think each of those comments came? One of the benefits I have personally received from asking these questions is a kind of measuring stick for my own leadership. When I hear a candidate describe their best boss, it gives me a chance to reflect on whether or not I provide that kind of leadership for my people. Conversely, well, you get the idea.

What About You and Me?

That whole process also makes me wonder whose list I would make. Hopefully, your wondering the same thing or at least thinking about how you would answer those questions. I’ve been blessed to hear from some of my people that they considered me to be the best boss they’ve had. What a humbling joy to hear something like that! Who wouldn’t want to be the best boss someone has had?

How do you become that best boss? Think of the question from the point of view of ”The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Habit 2 – Begin with the End in Mind”. Steven Covey suggests imagining you are attending your own funeral. What would you want people to say about you? What about if you were to leave your current position or your company; what would you want people to say about you and your leadership? Whose list of “Best Bosses” would you be on? What does it take to be or become a “Best Boss?” That’s what this blog is all about. Keep checking in and feel free to leave comments.