How Leaders Model Engagement During Team Building

Lack of employee engagement

70% of US workers are not engaged at work. This problem isn’t new. We are still struggling to find solutions. There is plenty of data to support the fact that companies with high employee engagement are significantly more productive and profitable, have less turnover and absences, and higher customer ratings.*

There certainly is no simple solution to fix employee engagement, but it is undeniable that leadership and management have a big impact.

In education, children learn far less from parents’ verbal instructions than from them as role models. They hear in school or from their parents over and over how important it is to eat healthy. Still, if we as parents don’t model that behavior, the likelihood of those words being effective is very small. We can talk about how to solve conflicts, and how to use our calm voice and listen to others, but kids are watching closely to see how parents deal with conflicts. And they will copy the behavior they see. Words are weak; role modeling is strong.

The same is true in the corporate world. But in a hierarchic structure, a leader’s engagement doesn’t always seem comparable to that of the employees. Modeling behavior works best when the level of experience is very similar. And this is where team building can be of great value. Team building creates an environment where everyone starts at the same level. No one is a master of the subject. The way leaders act under these circumstances can have a huge influence on work ethic and engagement.

Leader engagement during team building event

Let me share a few examples from my experience. In my team building experiences, I use painting as a tool to practice creativity and strengthen everyone’s creative muscle. Everyone gets to paint what comes into their mind. Leaders sit with their employees. Everyone starts off from the same point and usually with the same level of previous experience: none. I frequently see leaders that are good sports in the sense they want to support the activity with positive energy. They want the experience to be fun and rewarding. But where I see big difference between leaders is their levels of commitment.

There are the leaders who feel uncomfortable with the situation because they are afraid the final product won’t be stellar and thus not represent the status they usually have. Simply put, they fear looking stupid. This mostly happens subconsciously. So they often compensate by goofing off. They start being silly, taking it easy, trying out a few things here and there, then painting a big smiley face over their painting. In their behavior and in the way how they paint they overemphasize that “we are here to have fun, right? Let’s not be too serious about this.” They decide it is safer to not fully engage with their painting because they feel if they do commit to it and it turns out badly (which they expect to happen) they would make a fool out of themselves. They are afraid to show vulnerability.

Leaders as role models

And there are the leaders that see painting as an opportunity for growth. These leaders commit to it. They, too, typically don’t have previous experience, and they might feel nervous about their ability to handle this new challenge gracefully, but they commit. These leaders dive into the experience and overcome the fear of failure. They are eager to find benefits in this new adventure and to make it a valuable experience. And their attitude becomes visible to everyone in the room. They also have fun and can be silly, but at the same time they commit to what the team is doing. Their final painting might not stand out above the other paintings, but their approach is to engage.

The leader who doesn’t hide vulnerability earns trust. The leader who shows commitment in a situation where he or she has no advantage by status or experience becomes a role model for employee engagement. Trust and respect will be carried forward beyond the teambuilding and into the work.


* A Gallup study found that work units in the top quartile of employee engagement outperformed bottom-quartile units by 10% on customer ratings, 22% in profitability and 21% in productivity. Work units in the top quartile also saw significantly lower turnover (25% in high-turnover organizations, 65% in low-turnover organizations), shrinkage (28%) and absenteeism (37%). These work units also saw fewer safety incidents (48%), patient safety incidents (41%) and quality defects (41%).



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