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Blog, Performance

The Deep Roots of Employee Engagement

Posted: September 9, 2017 at 9:15 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

G U E S T  A R T I C L E

once came home from an international trip to find a fallen oak tree in my front yard that had nearly smashed my house on its way down. Winds had knocked it over after days of rain had soaked the ground and made it soft and soggy. I told the foreman of the clean-up company that I couldn’t believe those small winds were able to blow over this big sturdy tree. He said that while Oaks have extensive root systems, they are less than 12 inches deep; that once the ground was saturated, those surface roots had nothing to anchor to.

I said I hoped it wouldn’t happen to the tall pine trees that were closer to the house. Oh, it won’t, he assured me. That type of pine doesn’t rely on surface roots for stability. Its roots go down deep. It won’t be affected by winds or the rain loosening up the surface soil. It has deep roots.

Companies Have Roots Which Can Either Be Deep or Shallow

Like trees, companies also have roots, and they too can either be deep roots that protect it, or surface roots that are not anchored to anything. Winds and rains come to every company at one time or another and they all experience things that can “knock it down.” And when that happens, what ultimately determines whether or not a company can withstand the storm, is how deep the roots really are.

What constitutes deep roots for a company? It’s culture of course. A ‘deep root’ culture is one that fosters employee engagement at a level that can withstand any winds that competitive markets bring. A company with shallow roots, on the other hand, relies on stop-gap measures to temporarily make the company look good on paper. By doing so, a ‘shallow’ culture sacrifices the very foundation of trust that is required for a culture of engagement to exist. And Gallup data tells us that many companies are oaks that fall over easily due to shallow employee engagement – engagement that is quoted at a mere 30%.

Which is not surprising, given that most companies rely on heroic efforts to navigate broken processes, rather than building a workforce that stops to fix problems while creating excellent processes along the way. Most companies opt to make shareholder supremacy their overriding value, and willingly destroy employee trust by using mass layoffs to balance their books.

Companies Rely On Fire Fighting To Overcome Broken Processes That Fail

Over the loud and frequent announcements that “Customers Are First”, “Employees are our Greatest Asset” or “Quality is job 1,” employees see through that really fast and then engage at the mere surface, ultimately not “anchoring the company down.” And like a big oak tree, they expose it to adverse effects from even the slightest competitive winds.

 When Companies Incongruently Proclaim “Quality is Job 1” or the “Customer is King,” Employees Know Quickly and Will Only Engage at the Surface


Building deep company roots on the other hand, takes nothing more than a decision and a little bit of knowledge. The decision is an easy one – build a company environment that, in famed coach John Madden’s words, ‘allows people to fulfill their potential’ . . . an environment where the deep roots of engaged employees protect it, regardless of what marketplace winds may blow and what unforeseen storms may come. It’s the decision to play what Simon Sinek calls “the infinite game,” not a finite “win-lose” game.

It’s an even easier decision when you consider that pretending to create value through financial gimmickry . . . is nothing more than a facade. That’s a game plan played because of leaders who don’t really know how to create actual value. Ultimately that unenlightened leadership manifests at the very high price of employee trust and engagement, which is exactly why today’s disengagement average is 70%.


Successful 21st century leaders’ decide to be world-class and viable in the long run, to build a deeply rooted environment where people can flourish and be their natural best. They decide to build a company that is maniacal about delighting customers and fanatical about growing employees. Check it out for yourself. Look at the companies that have gained notoriety for taking over markets quickly in the past decade and witness how they check off all these boxes while channeling employee passion.

When that decision is mixed with the steps outlined below, employees go from being disengaged to passionately engaged, faster than a fully-floored Tesla. Whether you buy into Gallup’s claims of the billions of dollars lost to opportunity cost or not, you know that the passionate employee who’s on fire is the employee you want to hire. Imagine what an entire company of passionate employees will do for your company and what that will mean to your industry . . and your customers.

So what has to happen to build in these deep roots of engagement? How are leaders energized to fully engage ALL of a company’s energy to achieve the vision? And what creates an environment that fosters self-direction? Daniel Pink, renowned author of provocative books like Drive and A Whole New Mind, says it is one that allows autonomy where people have control over their time, their tasks, their teams and the techniques they will use to achieve world class work.

Ever experienced a company where employees were treated like a gang of thieving, lying, manipulative pirates who had to be watched over in order to perform? As sad as that sounds, you’re probably smiling right now because you have. The truth is, all people want to be treated as intelligent, competent and motivated achievers who can be trusted to do their best without being micro-managed for compliance. And here’s a quick test to prove it – how do you personally like to be treated? Are you the one who can’t be trusted and won’t work unless coerced? Or is it just those other guys?

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Enlightened management believes the overwhelming majority of people will engage to achieve a worthwhile goal, given good leadership, respect and the opportunity to have their innate needs satisfied – the needs for belonging, fun, power, freedom and survival. Real leadership combined with enlightened management that knows how to create value, provides the platform for a system that complements the innate drive of the people who come to work.

In short, that means autonomous teams able to solve their own problems using process thinking. Why autonomy? It’s demonstrably more effective and more importantly, it is the very best way to produce the holy grail of management, accountability in human beings. Daniel Pink calls that accountability “the fruit of autonomy” and as it turns out, it’s a lot easier to achieve than most people think. Here’s the basic steps.

Step 1 – Organize into Teams of 7 (+/- 2): Compel people to work together by activating and promoting teams that prompt maximum engagement. Create conditions that allow members to maximize their need satisfaction while simultaneously advancing company goals. Neglect the innate needs of your employees – get disengagement right out of the gate, never mind 100 percent of their efforts. It’s absolutely that simple.

You have to create the win-win situation to maximize organization wants with individual needs satisfaction. And if that’s not enough for you to move, think about the life of frustration and violated expectations employees are subjected to, working under archaic mental models that don’t take this into account.

Step 2 – Let Teams control their Time & Tasks: Foster autonomous problem solving by structuring to engage; and shift compliance-oriented managers to mentors of the teams, working to build their collective problem-solving muscles. Teach rules that allow the entity to fix its own problems.

Proactive installation of system rules comes first for leaders, and solving the problems of individual entities comes second. Leaders place primary emphasis on designing and implementing a system of constraints, coaching and structures that drive involvement anything else – its systems first and entities second.

Step 3 – Let Teams refine their Techniques: Maximize system and process thinking through Plan-Do-Check-Act learning cycles that build brilliant processes anyone can perform. Stop optimizing individual processes at the expense of the system. Manage the company and and its orbit of customers and suppliers in ways that optimize the whole, rather than only focusing on what misleadingly seems like the most important part.

As a final step, use simple visual management to focus the company on one vision, starting with a headquarters area that breaks down the corporate goals, step-by-step on a visual platform; and foster the same visual setup all the way down to team level. The human brain is hard-wired to be visual and as much as 50% of our brains are dedicated to visual processing at any given moment. This visual thread is the foundational block that makes it possible for everyone in the organization to focus on actions that move the vision forward, all while making it easy to measure progress.

So open the door for your leaders to articulate and define what has heretofore gone unsaid, instead of leaving visions unclear so that enthusiastic people work hard at different personal visions, each pulling in a different direction. Demand excellence and provide a challenge that is emotionally inspiring, and back it up with the simple steps outlined here. That’s what 21st century leaders are doing today and like the great Wayne Gretzky pointed out, you can join them by “executing the basics really well.”

If you are interested in implementing these steps in an organized, easy step-by-step way, please join me in a complimentary webinar by clicking here. In that webinar I will show you the exact implementation methodology that my team and I use in every single Lean transformation, having developed it over years and years of trial and error. Capitalize on our hard-won experience in less than an hour by signing up today. When you do sign up, you’ll receive a link to the webinar along with a reminder of the day and time.


About the author:

Jim Hudson

Jim Hudson, Lean Executive, is founder of the Lean Expert Academy, past partner in the Lean Leadership Institute with Jeff Liker (The Toyota Way), and author of the soon to be released book, Lea(R)n Thinking. Jim is also the CEO of a consulting company where he trains Lean consultants to implement the exact methodology and techniques that you are reading about hereSign up for our blog to get notified anytime posts are released.

See Jim’s full profile at LinkedIn.

Copyright information: The article and pictures are copyrighted material and have been published with permission from the author. No reproduction without author’s permission is permitted. Title picture is copyright of ASQ Ottawa Valley Section and not associated with the original writing.


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