Research & Thought Leadership

Team engagement: which zone are you in?

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How to assess team engagement? This is always a tricky question. Traditionally, the measure has been an acceptance of either ‘yes, the team is engaged’ or ‘no, they’re not.’ Subsequent steps are then taken to address the issues.

But it really isn’t as simple as that.

Our research has found workplace engagement is not a black-and-white issue. Instead, it can better be assessed in shades of grey. To put it in a simple way, it is not a binary affair.

To understand that, we need to watch how team members work, communicate and interact.

Shades of Grey

In our research — “Shades of Grey: An exploratory study of engagement in work teams”, over three years, we studied 41 work teams spanning nine industry sectors where we gathered data by observing teams at work, interviewing team leaders, running focus groups with teams and conducting self-report questionnaires. After analysing all of the data, we concluded there were four zones of engagement: contentment, disengagement, pseudo-engagement and engagement.

“The research challenges traditional binary notions of engagement or disengagement and questions if engagement surveys present the true story when it comes to team engagement,” we note. “Our findings show that the three most important factors regardless of which zone a team is located in are: ensuring people are given challenging and varied work; working with trusted colleagues; and having a team leader who is trusted and leads by example.”

This supports prior studies which suggest that engagement depends, in large part, on the quality of leadership that is experienced by team members and levels of psychological safety and trust within the team.

The four zones are as follows:

Zone of disengagement

Of all the teams we studied, 32% were found to be working in the zone of disengagement. This zone is characterised by a negative climate with low levels of trust, where cliques, gossip and blame are rife. One of the biggest ‘disengagers’ is the team leader themselves who is seen as a poor role model. Some study participants described such leaders as “too controlling, with an inability to trust the team and let go. The result being that teams felt disempowered.”

Zone of pseudo-engagement

Leaders have a different impact on teams operating in the zone of pseudo-engagement. These types of teams ‘appear’ engaged, however individual team members tended to be looking out for themselves by saying and doing the right things to impress higher-up. This includes team leaders themselves, who show more interest in ingratiating themselves to senior management rather than being available for their team.

Zone of contentment

The teams have a more positive working climate; however, people show little initiative or dynamism. They expect their team leader to solve problems that arise, are set in their ways and do only as much work as is needed. Some team members are there just to earn a wage or are simply holding out for retirement.

Zone of engagement

25% of teams fell into this category, which is marked by strong, positive relationships among team members and leaders. In such environments, people look out for one another, go above and beyond what is expected of them, and enjoy working together. Even when they disagree, people in these teams approach those differences constructively, which spurs creativity and innovation.

Our research found that “Engaging leaders are also seen as fair and honest, treating everyone in the team equally. Team members appreciate team leaders being straightforward with them… Other important attributes of engaging team leaders are openness and transparency, approachability and being a constant safety net.”

Care and compassion

Overall, we found that people engage when they make honest human connections and show genuine care for one another. (I explore this in greater depth in my book, The Human Moment: The Positive Power of Compassion in the Workplace.)

Actions beyond engagement

Whatever zone teams find themselves in, leaders can take positive steps to improve engagement.

· For contented teams, rotating people between different teams can foster new ways of thinking.

· Leaders can help teams in the zone of disengagement by showing more compassion and care, providing feedback and showing trust by giving people autonomy.

· Pseudo-engaged teams can move closer to real engagement by feeling rewarded for teamwork while discouraging individual efforts to “look good”.

· Leaders whose teams are already in the zone of engagement can continue to foster a positive climate by challenging people, celebrating successes and even sharing and rotating leadership.

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