Employee Engagement Begins with Team Building

Employee Engagement Begins with Team Building

leading leaders
This was the title of a presentation I was recently asked to review by an executive.  “Just shoot me now” was my immediate thought.

The presentation was for senior leadership to help shape their new team building initiative in an effort to “raise their employee engagement numbers”.

I am publishing this email almost 100% complete (I deleted any information that may ID the company) so that someone might benefit from some of the questions I posed.

At the end of the email is a quick synopsis of what happened after the initiative launched.

Below is the actual email:
Before I go any further, your vocabulary is disturbing. ‘Employee engagement’ is a terrible term created to talk about PEOPLE. Also, a person is not a number. I know you know this but using the right vocabulary is extremely important to be sure not to dehumanize a very human initiative.

Through any initiative, you must continually bring yourself, and the executive team, back to an individual person for litmus testing.

If you maintain the mindset of ‘improving your employee engagement numbers’, you will inevitably be drawn into making poor decisions.

Team Building
Using team building as your tool for employee engagement is extremely tricky and is just as likely to backfire and discourage engagement or even create disengaged people.

Many people use traditional team building expecting greater engagement when that same team building is ridiculed by the ‘team’. So, before we get into the engagement piece, let me ask you about the ‘team’.

One important question that is absolutely critical is – are they a true team?
A group with a common goal who are dependent upon one another to achieve that goal. If this is not a true statement, stop the ‘team building’ right now.

If these people are not a team, you can still run activities to improve engagement. You simply need to modify them and carefully select it. The key is you need to focus on the individual not the team. This is true in team building in the beginning as well.

There is some information on the site about Engage, one step in the Authentic Engagement Cycle. All of the steps are important to achieve engagement in an organization. As you will see, team building is one small tool in to be used in the entire process.

Your title of the PowerPoint, “Engagement Starts with Team Building!” shows me that perhaps your mindset is just a bit off.

Engagement as an Operating System, Team Building as an Application
Think of an engagement program in terms of Smartphone technology – operating systems and applications. Engagement is the operating system and team building is an application. Trying to run the application without the operating system working results in frustration and discouragement.

Imagine you convince everyone, through a fantastic presentation, to put their heart into the new application (team building) and they go through a great training system on how to use the new application – all is AWESOME! But when they go back to their desk and try using the application without a rock solid operating system, there is bug after bug after bug and it causes more problems than help. This is the typical foundation of most ‘team building’ programs and initiatives.

Based upon the metaphor above, team building is a GREAT application to help create engagement, but only if it built upon a solid foundation and trusted ‘operating system’.

I see you have referenced other organizations and their team building results. This is great for credibility of team building as an idea, but it appears you are going to ‘install’ an application that one company is using on your operating system. Your company, your operating system, is different from the company you reference. It WILL NOT work correctly if you do not tailor the initiative for your people, your culture, your ‘operating system’.

Questions about Engagement Prior to Team Building
Bottom line – engagement does not start with team building.

Before team building, some ‘operating system’ questions to ask are:

  • What kind of feedback system is in place to give the people a voice and let you know what is working and what is not?
  • Have you asked the employees about engagement, received their input and made adjustments before rolling out team building? If not, STOP what you are doing and go actually engage the people you are trying to impact. This top-down approach DOES NOT WORK in engagement. You need to get their input, actually listen to it and use it to create the applications moving forward.
  • What kind of leadership structure is in place? Does it support true engagement? In other words, if you have a ‘Command and Control’ military-style leadership and hierarchy, dealing with crisis goes well, but dealing with engagement is poor. Soldiers in the military can be engaged, but they are engaged with each other, protecting each other and don’t really care much about the ‘vision’ of the organization. So you end up with some true teams and many not. And the only time they really come together is when they are in crisis – in a gun battle. That leadership style does not work well with engagement.
  • Are you currently measuring engagement? What are the goals – what is success?
    • Levels of engagement measurement are:
      • Satisfaction (disengaged)
      • Happiness (very basic engagement)
      • Engagement (emotionally engaged)
    • What level are you measuring right now?
  • How is conflict and diversity of opinion encouraged and dealt with?
  • Do we empower people to express their opinion? How? Where? How is it captured?
  • Do we have a immediate feedback loop from employee to supervisor to employee? How immediate? Most organization have a yearly performance appraisal, with some also having quarterly reviews. You need something with a fast feedback loop.
  • How is it 100% clear that each person is valued in their role?
  • How are authentic connections created? (This is one area team building fits as the application)
  • Do the values of the organizations have direct applications in a person’s daily job? In what way?
  • How does the culture of the organization support engagement?

These are a handful of questions off the top of my head that we use when we are helping companies create engagement programs.

As you will see, NONE of these questions have anything to do with working with groups or teams yet. But you need to understand these answers and much more to ensure your operating system is working and agile enough to change with the needs of the applications and in this case ‘team building’.


Leaders, when you are considering employee engagement, you need to understand you are tinkering around with people’s emotions. Take great care because there is NO quick fix or one-size-fits all program. People do not have a power button on their heart you can push to ‘engage’ them.

Most people WANT to be engaged. Unfortunately, leaders tend to ask the WRONG question.

Instead of creating something new, like a team building initiative, to engage people, consider asking yourselves a different question:

What is preventing people from being engaged right now?

The answer to this question will lead to solution previously unexplored.


The questions I posed were largely ignored and the team building launched with fanfare, pomp and circumstance.

The executive who launched the team building has been let go after the incredible backlash and a monumental DROP in employee engagement throughout the organization. The team building was viewed as inauthentic and simply a management ploy to get people to work harder, which it exactly what it was.

While the executive who was let go held some responsibility, the entire senior leadership team was looking for a quick ‘fix’ to the employee engagement ‘problem’.  Engagement is highly personal and there is no single solution and certainly no ‘fix’.  However, there are frameworks to help you begin to create a solution for your people.

What advice would you have for this executive? Please share your ideas in the comments!

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