How do you engage with the unengagable?

Image by Terri Cnudde from Pixabay

That million dollar question all leaders want the magic answer to. 

I’ve done many a course and read many a book or article on how we should be engaging with people to get the most out of them and provide them with job/participation satisfaction.  We are told that we should include them in decision making, regularly communicate with them, and invite them to participate in projects that will allow them to share their expertise and grow their skills. We should be empowering them to make decisions.  We are reminded that a disengaged team can cause a drop in morale and performance and be disruptive.

But there are some who just don’t want to be engaged with.  They want to be valued, they want to be appreciated and for their efforts to be noticed. They want reward for doing a good job (some even want reward for doing an adequate or poor job, or for simply turning up at all).  They want to feel listened to and communicated with.  They want to be involved.  That is, right up until the time when you invite them to be involved.

One thing I struggle with time and again is trying to get people to look wider than the work that is right in front of them, especially when they tell me that they are not happy, or feel undervalued.  I invite them to participate; I offer courses that support their current role and any development they might want.  I provide them with opportunities to use their knowledge and skills and to develop processes and procedures or plans that they will ultimately be responsible for. I provide open door opportunities to share ideas and talk freely.

But they just don’t want to play.

I’m not the sort to press gang unless absolutely necessary, I ask for volunteers. There are times when I have had to say “you and you are going to help with this” but I want to see who has a spark, who is interested, and who wants to be involved. I shouldn’t be the one suggesting all the process changes; I’m not doing the job.  I can see opportunities to improve efficiency or process, but ultimately they have to own and be accountable for it, so it makes sense that they help develop it.

We are reminded that people respond positively when they are empowered to make choices and decisions for themselves, yet when they are given the opportunity they don’t want to take it. Figuring out what matters to them and how to spread positive stories, exchange ideas openly, and disseminate best practice is all well and good but only works when morale is already high and people are generally happier.  In this current climate, that’s really hard to do in a virtual world.

I think it also depends on the example they are given.  Enthusiasm breads enthusiasm, contempt breads contempt.   I try to be as upbeat as I can and to understand frustrations others are going through trying to deliver their piece of work or part of the project.  I acknowledge that not everything can be done as perfectly as we might want it to be and sometimes corners might need to be cut in order to meet a more pressing need.  I understand that there are often outside pressures that affect how motivated they feel.  However, there are usually others in closer relationships that seem predetermined to be pessimistic about everything. Everything is a disaster, it’s not their fault, and it’s nothing to do with them, they are not responsible or accountable.  That kind of vibe tends to spread like wildfire and before you know it most of the team is feeling down.  They don’t realise that they vibe they are giving off is affecting how others feel and then it spirals. 

I know that it’s extremely hard to eternally upbeat about everything all the time, it would be exhausting, and I certainly have my days when I’m not motivated or interested at all.  But if I want a more optimistic team around and people to be more engaged, then it’s my responsibility as a leader to start that vibe, or to find help when I need it.  If I can change one person’s attitude, which can then spread to someone else, I’d be happy.

I want people to develop, I want them to be fulfilled in what they do, be satisfied at the end of the day they did all they could to use their strengths.  I want them to feel they have all the information they need about what’s going on in their immediate and wider world.  I want all these things for them and provide opportunities for that.  They just don’t seem interested in taking it. People complain about lack of development, I give them the opportunity to develop, they don’t want to take it. They complain about not knowing what’s going on, so I tell them but then they don’t listen or connect the dots with the relevance to them. I need to make more of an effort to ensure the message is put across in a ways that does demonstrate relevance to them.

Whilst it would be great to have one to ones with absolutely every person to determine what motivates them and how they could be better developed, communicated with etc, the practicalities are not so simple.  It might be that I wouldn’t need to do that with everyone, just take a few key people to one side and address their motivations, then through the wonders of osmosis everyone else will feel more engaged and valued.

Reflecting on some of the reasons why previous attempts to engage others hasn’t worked it is useful to consider these questions:

  1. Who in my team have I connected with the least? what gets in the way of connecting with them more?  
  2. Think about the people I connect with the least in my team, service users and peer group, and notice any similarities.
  3. Think about who in my team I enjoy connecting with and why?
  4. Think about those who I feel psychologically safe around and why? and those who I do not and why?. What are the differential factors?   

There are many tools to try but I still don’t have a solution for how to engage the unengagable.


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