The Recipe for Engagement

It’s now a well-established fact that organisations that master the culture/engagement dynamic reap the benefits - higher profits, faster growth, greater productivity, lower attrition…but what’s the recipe for success?

Companies that get it right give employees something to engage with - we highlighted a few of them in a tweet last week. 

The budget US airline, Southwest Airlines, for example, won't give customers much more than a pack of peanuts with their flight, but they can fly cross-country for as little as $49, and the company's customer service is legendary.

Southwest succeeds through a culture of mutual respect, where a high percentage of employees ‘own’ their jobs. It's right there on the company's careers webpage: ‘Not just a career, but a cause.’ Leadership urges a well-managed work/life balance in which employees "value the opportunity to work hard, be creative, and have fun on the job."

So, how can you create a cause in the same way, whatever your business?

A recipe for success

Most people live their lives according to "What's in it for me?”. So if you want to be a productive leader, consider this: What is in it for your employees? When they’re engaged, they’ll reward you with a bigger share of their discretionary time and effort — and their collective productivity will skyrocket.

While many ingredients go into any individual engagement recipe, all have three components in common: Motivation, appreciation, and communication. 


Give people reasons to engage that go beyond appeals to company loyalty. In addition to inspiring them with fulfilling work and your own example, try building their sense of pride in what they do. What’s their purpose? Why does it matter? What kind of incentive are people given to go above and beyond? At John Lewis, for example, hardworking partners get a share of the profits.


Financial rewards might work well, up to a point, but so too does public acknowledgement: pats on the back, public call outs. Regular one-to-ones, where great work is highlighted, not just what went wrong, are also highly effective. Try doing something unexpected - rewarding a great piece of work with a dinner for two at a nice restaurant, for example, or another personal touch. Just make it consistent: When anyone trips the switch for recognition or reward, make sure they get it.


Long-term successful businesses communicate well. It’s the lifeblood of the organisation, the thing that keeps people on board through tough times, and stops the rumour mill from disengaging people. Keep your communications clear, consistent, and to the point. Share organisational goals and objectives, erring on the side of over-communication. Show everyone why and how their contributions matter.

Of course, every business is different, and Agents of Change work with many sizes and sectors to help them to succeed. Get in touch to discuss how we can help you.

Heroes: John Lewis

Many business leaders and organisations aspire to authenticity, transparency and openness, but struggle when it comes to implementation.  John Lewis and its leadership have long embodied all of these attributes - and outperform most of the competition. 

John Lewis has a unique culture, which engages partners and customers alike. Its focus on building this unique culture and distinctive brand has led to sustainable success. All 76,500 permanent staff are partners who own the business and its five elected board directors are supported by a council of 80 partners who discuss strategy and objectives and make key recommendations. This combination of shared leadership and authentic values is central to John Lewis’ success.

As many organisations struggle to increase levels of employee engagement, many John Lewis partners openly say how proud they are to work for the organisation they jointly own. The high level of trust within the business extends beyond it to its hugely loyal customer base. John Lewis leaders and all partners connect to the organisation's values, which in turn helps them connect to each other and to customers.

John Lewis is famous for its guiding principles. The partnership's ultimate purpose is 'the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business' - a principle at the very heart of employee engagement. Partners share the responsibilities of ownership as well as the rewards. The John Lewis principles underpin its authentic, open and honest leadership.

What lessons can other businesses learn from this beacon of light on the British High Street?




Enabling Conversations

For many of us, our instinctive reaction to facing what might be termed a 'difficult' conversation is to ignore the issue and hope that it goes away. Fat chance.

I inherited my own head-in-the-sand approach from my mother.  I believed she'd accidentally slipped it into my DNA until I eventually saw how futile, time-consuming and destructive my approach was – and that I could do things differently. 

At some point in our lives we all need to have a 'difficult' conversation with a partner, a peer, a team-member or a boss, about anything from a performance gap to something more personal.

How well we manage the conversation has a huge impact on our relationship, so understandably we're often anxious about bringing stuff up. We either avoid it for so long that when we do tackle it it comes as a complete shock to the other party, or we rush at it like a bull in a china shop just to get it over with, paradoxically damaging the relationship in the process.

But it doesn't have to be this way. The sooner we stop thinking of them as difficult conversations and start seeing them as enabling conversations, the sooner we're able to step up and master the simple skills it takes to communicate anything to anyone.

The only reason we would ever embark on an enabling conversation is to try to make something better - be that performance, behaviour or our relationship. And whatever 'better' looks like to us, it needs to feel better for both parties.  

So here are our top ten tips to help you get the result you're after:

  • Choose the right conversation - at the right time.
  • Be clear in your own mind about the outcome you're seeking.
  • Invite them in - how you initiate the conversation builds trust and a sense of safety.
  • Maintain faith in people's desire to do their best.
  • Approach with concern and curiosity - not judgement.
  • Listen to their perspective.
  • Talk about the effect of behaviours on you/others.
  • Use contrasting to build safety - "I don't want you to think that..."
  • Offer support and reassurance - how can you or others help them to succeed?
  • Look forward to solutions, not backwards to blame.


Space to Think

We recently held our fourth Breakfast of Change. Over the year our little movement has been organically growing as more people hear about what we are doing and are drawn to join. It is very much a dedication to creating space. Space to think, to hear, to digest, to experiment, to explore, to connect, to slow down, to contemplate not what we do, but how we do it. 

Working with executives and business owners I know the need for this is desperate; we don’t give ourselves permission to slow down and really see what is going on, to consider the impact of our behaviour and decisions. 

Our focus on this occasion was inspired by Google’s research demonstrating the importance of creating psychological safety to aid team performance, to question what risks we take to create safety. We experimented with a process to help us slow the conversation right down and enable us to hear each other’s contributions without interruptions. 

The conversation and connections were rich. People talked about silence, vulnerability, fear, blame, judgement, connection and disconnection, being busy, being uncomfortable in the moment, needing the answers and not having them, wanting to be okay to say ‘I don’t know’, what it’s like in their organisations, what they observe in their clients, what taking a risk means, letting go. Unsurprisingly, there was the odd mention of Brexit too. 

We are conscious in how we set up the Breakfasts to ensure psychological safety, focusing on creating an environment of acceptance and warmth over judgment, because that enables people to feel free to express themselves, just as they are. And as yesterday’s Breakfast confirmed, that doesn’t mean that we all agreed with each other or that there wasn’t some robustness and discomfort in the conversations. But it did mean that people, some of whom had only just met, some who hadn’t even gotten to learn each others names yet, were able to express what they experienced. 

As we closed the session, we turned our minds to ‘So what?’. It’s always nice to have breakfast and discuss important issues with a diverse group but So What? 

What I took away was a commitment to hold these slowed down conversations more. With my clients, with my husband, with my children. To create space where people feel safe to express what they are really experiencing over what they feel they should contribute. In my experience that’s how we get to the heart of the matter rather than gloss over the surface.