Motivating a disengaged team

Luke Grimstrup

More than 19 million US workers—and counting—have quit their jobs since April 2021, (McKinsey). This number is only going to rise with the uncertain times we are living in. As a leader, have you ever struggled with motivating a disengaged team? It can be difficult for even the most talented leaders to keep a team motivated and engaged. This is why, especially now, it is important for leaders to take the time to get to know their team better and try to foster a nurturing relationship. Leaders who do this will have an advantage in attracting and retaining talent.

It's up to the leaders in the company to understand and diagnose why teams and individuals are might not be engaged and to find ways to get teams excited. It’s also on leaders to connect day-to-day activities and outputs to the overall business impact. In this blog post, we'll discuss some tips and strategies for motivating a disengaged team that goes beyond perks, and other financial transactions. Keep reading to learn more!

Tip 1: Talk to each person on the team

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I know it can be tempting to only talk to top performers and the most outspoken on a team. However, as a leader, you need to make sure you're engaging everyone on the team. Talk to them about their work, find out what they're excited about, and what challenges them. You may be surprised at how much they have to share.

It's impossible to try to fix the problem of disengagement without first understanding the origin. So, do what no one else has done before: speak with each of the team, listen to their side, and allow them to express their feelings even if they may be conflicting with yours. It is about providing an open non-judgemental environment for everyone to feel comfortable to share their views.

Once you’ve spoken to everyone this should give you some ideas on what's going on, what could be behind any conflict, and the potential lack of communication.

It's also a good idea to talk to those outside of the team (within the same function or others across the organization) that may interact with the team to try and gain additional insight into what's working well and not working well.

The book First 90 Days goes into detail about how to extract information from people, and I have also relied on these strategies when working with a new team.

Tip 2: Hold a retro

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When you a milestone in the project, or a come to natural juncture to hit the pause button for a moment, hold a retro for whatever length of time makes sense (week, 2-week, month, quarter). What has and hasn't worked? What bottom-up improvements might be made by the team to improve the typical day-to-day?

I’ve found that engineering teams are great at holding retros on a regular basis to try and drive improvement within the stuff they can control on a regular basis, but cross-functional teams aren’t as religious about the ritual. I’ve found that cross-functional retros are great when there’s a need to drive some serious improvement in a group working together, put all your cards on the table and to do a rest as a team.

Tip 3: Propose solutions to the issues

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By now, you’ve spoken to individuals one-on-one, and have held a wider group retro. You have a lot of raw material to turn the team around and start fixing the underlying issues.

Quite often a team will share issues in a retro but are often not the ones that can action items that impact beyond their team. They need a champion for the team, and that champion is you.

Digest the problems and propose solutions and activities to address them. Once you have done this, get your executives' input on it and agree with them on what to do next.

I’ve found that as a product leader, you’re often best placed to drive change. Once you’ve collated a bunch of feedback from the above two points, you can meet with stakeholders and other teams to give them feedback and suggestions in a meaningful way that can drive a change in behaviour or approach.

Tip 4: Review progress and forward-looking plans

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Hold a "Look-back / Look-forward" session. This is not the same as the retro. This is a session that you can prepare for or have other senior stakeholders participate in. The purpose of this meeting should be to highlight the recent quarter's biggest milestones, provide recognition of the team's impact, and set the stage for the future with no more than 2 - 3 major focus areas for the next few months.

This is one of the best ways to motivate a team and align everyone to common objectives. During a session like this you're able to:

  • Communicate your vision for the team and inspire them to work together towards common objectives.
  • Your team looks at you as a role model so it is very important to make sure that you are implementing and practicing everything you suggest or want from your peers and team.
  • Give your team members praise for the work done and results achieved in the previous quarter. As well as being honest about what the team might have tried but didn't quite work out. It is important not to always be highlighting just the wins but also any struggles so that they can see that struggling to achieve something is a part of the journey to finally solving the problem.
  • Finally, open it up to the floor, answer questions they have about the past period and on the upcoming focus areas.

I love the energy these sessions can create and the questions they can provoke from around the room. It’s another way to let concerns out early on and set you and the team up for success to execute well.

Tip 5: Send weekly updates

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You have weekly status check-ins with your stakeholders where you're preparing or even just discussing how progress is tracking towards those big initiatives, but in today's remote-first environment you need to consider the regular update as a way to keep the rest of the team informed as well. This helps to reinforce and align towards common objectives, celebrate the wins, build trust with the team and promote a sense of belonging. Using a tool like enform.io could be a good solution for keeping teams more informed.

I’ve found that by using a solution like this that the teams are far more engaged and aware of what’s going on across the organization. It definitely requires diligence to build this into a good practice and is worth it for the sake of the team.

In summary

In order to be a great leader, you need to be able to motivate your team. I strongly believe this can be done with relying on financial incentives. When dealing with disengaged teams it's important to understand the source of the problem. Speak with each team member and listen to them, hold a retro, and propose solutions and work with senior leadership on the getting the proposals over the line. It's also on the leader of the group to provide that forward looking view, set the right direction and context moving forward and to keep the team informed with regular updates.

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