• For Creative Leaders, an Engaged Team is No Longer Enough

    Alla Zollers is a leadership coach and organizational designer. She will be speaking and leading a workshop at this year’s Managing Experience Conference, March 29-30 in San Francisco. Register for MX16 here.

    I know that 68% of people are not engaged at work.¹
    I believe that engagement at work is table stakes.
    I want people to go way beyond engagement to full-on participation.

    Participation is really what creative leaders are looking for from their team. Performance is a side effect of participation, and engagement isn’t enough; engagement is going to the meetings and doing one’s job–maybe even very well–but it’s not paying attention to anything beyond that. Participation is a genuine enthusiasm, zooming-out and being keenly attentive to the whole and what is needed in the moment, beyond one’s role or scope. It’s about everyone on the team being a leader, not defined by job title, but by how they show up on a day-to-day basis, what they pay attention to, and how they support other people. I’ve found that leaders can cultivate participation by encouraging connection at three levels: connection to self, others, and purpose.

    What does participation look like?
    Full participation on a team looks like a murmuration, a large flock of birds that is so attuned to each other that they move as a whole. Full participation is an energetic force, a gust of wind that can lift a team and open up the creativity that is desperately needed to design truly valuable products and services.

    More concretely, participation looks like eagerness to act, share, collaborate, and help. It’s people being “response-able” to the circumstances around them instead of reactive, and taking ownership for the whole experience, not just an individual slice.

    We know participation is present because we can feel it. It not only generates energy and enthusiasm, but it also affects productivity and creativity.

    So…how do creative leaders cultivate participation?
    Leaders cultivate participation by devoting attention, time, and resources to creating human connection. Human connection is the cord that allows individuals to plug into the energy of the team and want to participate.

    Brene Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”²

    We are hardwired to connect, and when a team feels connected, they are more resilient to stress, display high creativity, and make better decisions. One neuroscientist has even gone so far as to describe connection as a “superpower.” Disconnection, on the other hand, makes us vulnerable to stress and anxiety, and it is neurologically impossible to be creative during a stress response.

    What does it mean to put attention on connection?
    Leaders can establish practices that support connection at three levels: connection to self, connection to others, and connection to purpose. People need to experience connection at all three levels in order to feel safe to fully participate in creative work–two out of three isn’t enough.

    Level 1: Connection to Self
    The ability to accurately perceive our own emotions and stay aware of them as they happen. It’s the ability to talk to oneself with kindness, consciously lower our defenses, stay flexible, and positively direct our own behavior.

    Example Practice
    Uplevel people’s emotional intelligence by creating a shared emotional vocabulary and then use it during check-in meetings. Each individual is given the chance to take a moment to scan their body, notice and name how they are feeling in the moment.

    Level 2: Connection to Others
    The ability to accurately pick up on the emotions in other people, empathize and understand what is really going on under the surface. The ability to speak honestly, openly, and without judgement.

    Example Practice
    Scheduling regular meetings where people are invited to clear out emotional debris such as assumptions, withholds, and apologies while also sharing appreciations.

    Level 3: Connection to Purpose
    The ability for an individual to understand the “why” behind their work, see their impact on real people, and feel a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

    Example Practice
    Collaboratively work together to create a real purpose for the team–not a plaque that hangs on a wall–rather, something the team can get behind. Then, create a rotation schedule where everyone has a chance to have direct contact with customers and feel their impact.


    Creating connection and ultimately fostering participation is an investment in the invisible infrastructure of the team. It brings to the surface and prioritizes the energy grid that already exists between people, and has the ability to light up a team’s brilliance.

    Let’s go beyond the mechanics, beyond engagement, to full-on participation.

    For more frank discussions and new insights into creative leadership, come to Adaptive Path’s 2016 Managing Experience Conference, March 29-30 in San Francisco. Register here and get a spot in Alla’s workshop, The Well-Designed Leader: Amplify Your Team’s Brilliance. 


    ¹2016 Gallup Poll
    ²The Gifts of Imperfection
    Main image credit: Airwolfhound


    About Alla Zollers

    Alla wants to live in a world where wholeheartedness rules, everyone is a brilliant leader, and organizations are seen as living organisms instead of machines. As a leadership coach and organizational designer, Alla has worked with large enterprise organizations as well as small boutique agencies. She is a professionally certified coach specializing in organizational systems coaching. When she is not coaching, you can find her facilitating workshops, dancing tango, meditating, and taking yet another personal development class.

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