EngageMe! Practical tips to have an engaged project team


Jana Axline, MBA, PMP, Project Implementation Lead, Axline Solutions

Understanding employees' strengths and opportunities can be an overwhelming task, but it is essential to a company's success. Leaders need to see how strengths, skills, and job duties align, resulting in increased project success. This paper reviews techniques on how to have the right person in the right place, as well as what to do if someone on the project is not performing. We will examine:

  • • How to hire the right people and align them to the right position
  • • How to set expectations and hold people accountable
  • • How to give recognition for maximum impact


Is it possible to increase project effectiveness through employee engagement? It is. Imagine a company where people enjoy coming to work. Not only do they enjoy it, they are all top performers, and heck, they even work well together. How much more effectively do you think your project delivery would be if your people knew their jobs, performed well, and produced quality products? If you believe it would improve, then it is time to pay more attention to employee engagement.

What is employee engagement? Employee engagement is “a heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for their job, organization, manager, or co-workers that, in turn, influences them to apply additional discretionary effort to their work” (Patenaude, 2013, p. 226). In other words, engaged people try harder. They aren't going through the motions. Engaged people care about their output.

The employment landscape has changed. We have moved from an era where people worked simply to fund the rest of their lives to an era where people are more inclined to find work that provides meaning to them, even if that requires job hopping. People are less afraid to leave a position in hopes of finding fulfillment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, people stay with a company less than five years and have 11 different jobs in their lifetime. With the willingness of employees to leave their current positions, employers have to do more to ensure their talent is retained.

Not only is it costly to have great talent leaving, it is expensive to have disengaged talent. Disengaged talent costs companies $416 billion annually (Love, 2010). What is worse is that worldwide engagement levels range from 22-42%. That means that anywhere in the world more than half the organization is not engaged, and therefore is not as productive as it could be.

Exhibit 1 - Engagement levels throughout the world (BlessingWhite Research, 2013, p. 6)

Exhibit 1 - Engagement levels throughout the world (BlessingWhite Research, 2013, p. 6)

With staggering costs of hiring, turnover, and loss of productivity from disengaged talent, it is critical that all leaders have a focus on engagement. No longer can this be pushed off to the human resources department; it is the responsibility of every leader in the organization. Engagement is an on-going process that begins with hiring and must be addressed at every stage of the employment lifecycle.

Hire the Right People

With the new trend to love what you do and the increasing costs of hiring, it is critical to attract and retain the right talent. The American Management Association estimates that to replace an employee it costs 30% of her salary. To replace a manager it costs 1.5 times his salary. According to a Forbes article, hiring a new employee can range anywhere from 30-50% of her salary (Teten, 2013). With such high costs, it is important to hire the right people.

Finding the right people can be challenging, and often the reason companies hire the wrong people is that the hiring managers do not understand what is really needed. They head down the wrong track from the beginning, focusing on the technical skills needed for a position without really understanding what type of character is necessary for team success. In Good to Great, Jim Collins purports that hiring managers should first understand the character that is valued in an organization. What is critical for the team's success? Is it creativity? Problem-solving? Attention to detail? Understanding the inherent qualities a person needs to be successful should be the first step in the hiring process.

When interviewing, leaders should focus more on the character of the interviewee versus the technical skills. While being able to perform the technical aspects of job is important, having the right character should trump technical ability. If you have a candidate who is technically strong but lacks in character and a candidate who is mediocre technically but excels at the character required for success, chose the latter. Over time, this person will have higher success. It is much easier to provide training for technical gaps than it is to train character.

A new trend catching on in the workforce is providing an opportunity to test drive the job first. In an effort to set realistic expectations regarding job duties, some companies have gone so far as to try to scare candidates in hopes that only those who are truly interested will apply. In Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath discuss this topic in-depth and share one example that seems to receive a lot of success. Zappos, in an effort to reduce the amount of turnover they experience, offers candidates $3,000 to quit after the first day of training. The idea is to allow candidates to get a taste for what the position is really like, but then make it easy for them to leave if it is not the right fit. Whether you are letting someone try the job for 90 days or paying them to quit, there are many opportunities to improve the hiring process to get the right candidate on board.

If you have spent more time concerned with getting the right people in the organization, you can then turn to getting them in the right positions.

Put Them in the Right Place

Often, organizations are focused on improving employee performance by focusing on weaknesses. However, much more success can be found in improving employee engagement when organizations focus on employees' strengths. This is because employees are happier when operating in an area of their strengths. They are met with success more frequently and go home feeling they have performed well at their job. When operating in strengths, employees gain satisfaction and self-worth.

It is important to know where each member of your team excels. There are many assessments available to understand employees' strengths. Here is a synopsis of a few:

StrengthsFinder by Tom Rath. This book has an in-depth test that helps the reader uncover his or her top five strengths (out of 34 common identified strengths). The book walks through each strength and discusses ways to improve and rely on those strengths. It has a very scientific tone.

Soar with Your Strengths by Donald O Clifton, PhD. This book is great because it really connects with the reader. It is written in such a beautifully simplistic way that it is easy to see the importance of relying on your strengths. It is a very motivating book because readers once again see value in their strengths versus feeling disheartened by their weaknesses.

Emergenetics by Geil Browning, PhD. The book does a great job explaining why our brains work the way they do. It helps you uncover your thinking preferences and then combines it with how you behave. It is comprehensive. The downside? It is a little on the expensive side for strength finding. I personally believe it is worth it.

You may not have the funding to be able to assess your entire team. Here are a few questions you can ask of your employees to help assess their strengths:

  • What project would you like to volunteer for?
  • What makes you excited to go to work each day?
  • What has been the best project you have spear-headed?
  • What do you enjoy about your current position? What have you enjoyed about past positions?

Once you understand your employee's strengths it is easier to align them with the right position. A person should enjoy the majority of her job to stay engaged. There will always be aspects of jobs that people would rather not do, but if you are able to align people with work they get energized about, then their engagement level will increase. In turn, this will increase their productivity and directly improve the bottom line.

Disengaged employees can decrease the overall success of the project or department. The engagement level of one person affects everyone on the team. If one individual is not performing, it spreads through the department like a disease. A frequent complaint on employee surveys is a lack of action taken when there are poor performers. The rest of the team feels they are doing better work and yet getting equal treatment (their salaries). Discontent begins to prevail and the productivity of the entire team declines.

When there are poor performers on a team it means one of two things. You either have the right person in the wrong place or the wrong person. To distinguish between the two, first understand if the person has the right character, and understand the person's strengths and weaknesses. If he has the right character, align him to a position that better utilizes his strengths. Or perhaps he even has the right strengths but there is a training gap. It is much more cost-effective to provide the additional training than it is to replace him.

Exhibit 2 - Combinations of character and strength alignment

Exhibit 2 - Combinations of character and strength alignment

If a poor performer doesn't have the technical skills or the character necessary to be successful in the organization, then it is time to get him off the bus. Every organization has different policies and practices to remove poor performers, but the key, regardless of the organization, is consistency and documentation. Be consistent in your communication of expectations and gaps you are seeing in those expectations being met. It is also critical to be consistent between employees. Having differing expectations for different employees in the same role can open you up to liability. As you meet with your poor performer, make sure you document the conversations, what you are doing to help the employee meet the expectation, and any continued gaps on the employee's part. Make sure you consult with your human resources contact to understand the policies specific to your organization.

Show Them Where to Go

Building the right team goes a long way in employee engagement. The next biggest tool to keep employee engagement high is your leadership. Providing the right support and guidance provides reassurance to your team. When your team understands what the expectations are and what it takes to be successful, they understand the boundaries in which to do their work. People are much happier when they understand what success within their position is supposed to look like.

The biggest challenge in setting expectations is our tendency to make assumptions. We assume people understand our direction or they will do the task the way we would do it. This is definitely not always the case! Non-negotiables of the task should always be communicated. It is best to place as few constraints on the task as possible. Allowing employees to execute their job in their way (empowerment) increases employee engagement. Additionally, they may even do it better than you, so if you put limitations on their method of implementation you may miss out on some great improvements.

To increase the likelihood the expectation is understood, make sure you ask the employee to restate the expectation in her own words. This increases the chances that you are in alignment with what is being asked and what is heard. It also gives you the opportunity to uncover any training or skill gaps. If you and the employee are aligned on the expectation, she now has the ability to express concerns about her ability to execute. Clear expectations help the team operate more effectively.

A quick way to create frustration or dissatisfaction on the team is to not follow up on expectations. If you do not follow up, it gives employees the impression that the expectation was not important to begin with. It can also divide the team. If half the team is executing on the expectation and the other half is not and you are not following up to know, there will be a perception that you are not dealing with poor performers.

Recognize Them Along the Way

If you have the right people in the right place and they understand where they are headed, then the only thing left to do is to recognize them. Recognition is a critical piece of employee engagement. People want to know they are valued by you and the company. And while you may feel a paycheck should be enough, it is not. Employees can easily leave and find a paycheck elsewhere. The thing that keeps employees loyal is when they feel they are directly contributing to the success of the organization and are being recognized for doing so.

To ensure your recognition is impactful, it is important to be sincere. Telling people “thank you” or that they did a good job is meaningless if it is not honest. Take time to find what your team is doing right. Everyone on your team is providing some sort of value or they should not be there. Understand what each person's contribution is and make a point to recognize it.

Recognition should be specific. When you recognize someone for something specific it is more special. Plus, then the employee has a better understanding of what makes him successful in your eyes. Saying “great job” is okay, but saying, “Great job! I appreciate how you took initiative to solve that customer's issue,” is a lot more effective. It re-enforces what is important to you and it enables the employee to repeat her success.

Recognition isn't one size fits all. Understanding what is meaningful to your team is important. Some people like public recognition while others are satisfied with one-on-one recognition. It is also good to mix up types of recognition. One time you can send an e-mail to your boss recognizing your employee (with them on copy), and the next time take them out to lunch. Recognition does not have to be expensive, just meaningful. The most effective way to make it meaningful is to know your employees and what they value.

Recognition goes a long way when it is sincere. It is a win-win situation as well. The employee feels valued at work, and you get an employee who is more motivated to continue to deliver value. Increased employee engagement increases overall quality and productivity. This should make it worth your time to recognize and to do so frequently.

If you want a high-performing and engaged team, it is critical to take an active role in keeping your team engaged. Taking the time to ensure you have the appropriate team composition, aligning strengths with job descriptions, and ensuring people have strong character, are key to ensure the team culture remains high. Moving people off your team who do not have the character or the strengths necessary boosts engagement, as the rest of the team no longer feels they are carrying dead weight. Having the right team is critical, but then it is your job to ensure you are communicating the expectations and holding the team to the expectations. Finally, to maintain high employee engagement, you must recognize those things your employees are doing that you would like to see more of. If you take the time to do these things, the overall productivity of the team will increase, and you will reduce costs by reducing turnover.

BlessingWhite Research. (2013, January). Employee engagement research update, 6.

Love, Alaina. (2010, June 18). Closing the human potential gap. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved on August 20, 2014 from http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/jun2010/ca20100617_678776.htm

Patenaude, M. G. (2013). Performance equation: The rocket science (not!) behind how great people, teams and organizations work. Victoria, BC, Canada: FriesenPress.

Teten, David. (2013, July 25). How to hire a new employee and make sure you don't fire them. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidteten/2013/07/25/how-to-onboard-a-new-employee-and-make-sure-you-dont-fire-them/

© 2014, Jana Axline
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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