The Open Organization book club: Engaging people

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Open Organization book cover stacked

When Jason Hibbets asked me to lead this week's discussion for the Open Organization book club, I wasn't sure what I could contribute. My own experiences as a leader weren't disastrous, but they weren't all that successful. Still, I was willing to give it a shot.

By coincidence, I was asked to discuss one of the chapters that really struck a chord with me. The topic of that chapter? Engagement. Having been both an employee and a team lead, I've seen effective and not-so-effective efforts to build and maintain engagement.

Engagement, I've found, can be powerful. It can shape the way employees work. It can strengthen a company. Engaging people in an organization, even an open organization, isn't as simple or straightforward as it sounds. It's worth the effort, as engagement can bring out the best in employees.

Discussion (Chapter 3: Building Engagement)

In the book club this week, we'll be discussing "Chapter 3: Building Engagement."

There are a number of passages in that chapter that got me thinking. But the one that stuck in my head was:

If a key goal of the open organization is to build the capability for members to make their own decisions, act quickly, take initiative, and creatively solve problems, then engagement is critical. I've heard many times—and correctly, I believe—that a leader's primary job is to create context for his or her organization. As Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks, once said: "The person who sweeps the floor should choose the broom ... We need to get rid of rules—real and imagined—and encourage independent thinking." (page 57)

Engagement, though, is a lot like passion (which Open Organization Ambassador Robin Muilwijk discussed recently). But, as Jim Whitehurst wrote, "Purpose and passion go a long way to creating the motivation for being engaged, but neither creates engagement per se." (p. 55)

With the right people, you can easily spark engagement. Engagement can burn strong and bright for a brief period, then quickly fade and turn to ashes. A good leader needs to be able to keep the fires of engagement stoked through the good times and the rough times.

That's the difficult part. Not just engaging people who might be wary of the idea of The Open Organization, but also engaging the passionate employees who might not be fully on board with what you're trying to do. A good leader can help make that happen. One way to do that is for the leader to be accountable. Accountable by explaining why and how a decision was made. Accountable by owning up to mistakes and missteps.

Engagement can, and I think must, go deeper than that. How? I'm turning that over to you to ponder. Feel free to use these questions as a guide:

  1. What do you believe are the key elements of engagement in an organization?
  2. How do you create the context that Jim Whitehurst mentioned, the one that engages teams?
  3. How do you encourage employees who are reluctant to choose their own brooms?
  4. What do you do when you see the fires of engagement dimming—either in individuals or in multiple members of a team?

Feel free to share your answers and thoughts in the comments section. I look forward to reading what you have to say.

A message from Jim


That idiot Scott Nesbitt ...
I'm a long-time user of free/open source software, and write various things for both fun and profit. I don't take myself all that seriously and I do all of my own stunts.


People should choose their own brooms, yes, but engagement is about asking people which broom they chose and why. A good leader should have an honest relationship with a contributor. A good leader knows the reasoning behind slow or stopped contribution. With a trusting, empathetic relationship, people can work through whatever is going on. That empathy in tandem with open, transparency is what leads to the context people need to stay engaged.

There are dynamics at play in any group setting, including online groups. Different types of personalities which might reveal why certain people seem unengaged or reluctant. Careful consideration can help a leader figure out how to engage a particular kind of person. In the end, a good leader is one who helps people as individuals – that relationship is what leads to sustained engagement.

"In the end, a good leader is one who helps people as individuals – that relationship is what leads to sustained engagement.". That's an excellent point. Nothing I can add to it!

Thanks for joining the discussion.

In reply to by LauraHilliger

Scott asks:

How do you create the context that Jim Whitehurst mentioned, the one that engages teams?

I'm thinking here of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs)—like World of Warcraft or Eve Online—in which designers craft the most challenging levels such that completing them absolutely requires team participation. No single player can tackle the late stages of World of Warcraft by herself; succeeding demands combining myriad skills in order to tackle obstacles. Leaders might act like MMORPG designers, molding challenges from the ground up in ways that draw associates into their orbits. Great leaders might develop and frame goals not only as opportunities for team members to join forces, but also as something that requires leveraging the skills of everyone on a team. Of course, this is only possible if leaders know those associates' talents through and through. And that, of course, is only possible if they engage with them regularly.


A very interesting take on this. And I have to agree. You do bring up a good point: engagement takes time. Leaders and their teams need to get to know each other -- their strengths, their weaknesses, and their boundaries. It's not going to happen overnight or over the space of a couple of weeks. It's only then that they can build those challenges you mentioned.

In reply to by bbehrens

What do you do when you see the fires of engagement dimming—either in individuals or in multiple members of a team?

This is a tough one. My approach usually involves a personal inquiry about how things are going at work and ask if there is anything I can do to help. I periodically review with my team the things that they don't like to do and the things the love to do--so I can get a sense of what possibly not motivating and what fuels their passion.

And of course, it goes without saying, that you should celebrate wins. All the time! And their a number of ways to do this. Thank you emails, team lunch, happy hour, and special recognition for certain milestones.



Some good advice there.

Have you ever run into a situation where no matter what you did, you couldn't help respark a team member's passion? If so, how did you handle that?

In reply to by jhibbets

Sometimes you have to let people follow their heart--they may choose to look for opportunities. Other times, you need may need to part ways with "bad apples" so they don't bring the rest of the team down. I've dealt with both situations. Neither are easy to deal. Obviously, grooming someone to go on and do better things is preferred.


In reply to by ScottNesbitt

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