One of the issues many of my clients struggle with is how to create engagement and commitment amongst their team.  Many of them are newly promoted to team lead or supervisory roles, and often, are lacking in the training on how to supervise or motivate their staff.  This problem is especially challenging when you combine it with a tight labour market, and employees with high ambitions of what their work experiences should provide as an intrinsic reward.

There is a simple communication technique that I often recommend that can have a decided impact upon team morale.  It involves a simple yet important adjustment in how many communicate.  However, the results can be significant.

It’s All About Context

The technique involves sharing details around the context of what is being asked, or the circumstances around a decision.

Context, in its simplest form, involves the environment, setting or circumstances around an event, an issue, an idea or a situation.

Definitions are fine, but what does this look like in practical terms?  Say that you work as the Production Department head of a company that makes water filtration equipment.  Your company has just landed a major government contract to provide 100,000 filtration units for an international relief agency operating in Africa.  Meeting the production quota will entail substantial overtime during the period around a major long weekend.  Clearly, asking many people to forsake their leisure time to work overtime is often not a popular undertaking.

I suppose you could just tell them they will be required to work overtime, or post a notice, and then deal with the negative aftermath that ensues.  Or, you could be proactive, recognize there could be opposition, and use an approach something like this:

“Hey guys!  You’ve all heard about the famine going on right now in Africa, right?  This is a major human tragedy.  Well, the good news is:  our company has just landed a major contract to provide much needed water filtration equipment for an international relief agency operating in that region.  Unfortunately, in order to meet this deadline, it’s going to entail everyone making some sacrifices.  That probably means we may be working overtime leading up to and through the coming long weekend.

I realize this may be a disappointment, but I’m sure you recognize that this is both a huge business opportunity as well as a chance to do something positive for an important cause. The company and I am counting on you, and as much as possible we’ll try to minimize the overtime so it doesn’t conflict with your leisure plans.

Thanks very much for your understanding and support.  Please speak with me directly if you have any questions”.


Providing context to team members on instructions and requests helps build understanding, commitment and collaboration (Photo courtesy of Tina Miroshnichenko and Pexels)

Providing context to team members on instructions and requests helps build understanding, commitment and collaboration (Photo courtesy of Tina Miroshnichenko and Pexels)

Why Context is Really, Really Important

Gone are the days when a supervisor could simply tell someone to do something and it would be obeyed without question or challenge.  That “command and control” style of communication and management may have worked fifty years ago, but it is out of sync with the times in which we live, and the type of employees in today’s workplace.

Employees, particularly Millennials, have a strong desire to feel their work has meaning.  They are inquisitive by nature, and need to understand not just what is required of them, but also, the “how, what, when, where and why”.  Providing context offers insight into what is behind a request.  It explains not just the environmental factors, but also, the reasoning and purpose behind the request.  To be truly effective, it should be welcoming, and invite participation and commitment.

Employees today are much better educated than prior generations.  They want to feel empowered.  They want to feel they have a role.  They want to feel involved.  And, probably most importantly, they want to learn.  Simply stating a request may be perceived as condescending and dismissive.

Granted, there are times such as in an emergency, when providing context is neither possible nor even required.  However, if you want to engage your workplace, and build commitment, providing context is one simple way of coaching your team to higher levels of engagement.

A Final Thought….

Years ago, I worked in a company that purchased another firm in a distant city.  As the Human Resources Manager it was my role to assist in integrating the newly acquired company into the parent organization’s corporate structure.

I remember the first time I went to visit the offices of the new division. I met with all the management team as a group, and later, individually.  One of the managers (I’ll call him “Charlie”) was a former lieutenant in the Canadian Armed Forces.  Charlie’s office was decorated with military pictures and memorabilia, including a decorative military sword.  Interestingly, his department was responsible for Customer Service.  Not surprisingly, Charlie ran his department like his former regiment, to the point where he referred to his Assistant Manager as his “First IC” (i.e. In Charge), and his department as his “platoon”.  His style of leadership was to issue commands which were frequently shouted out.

As we discussed the challenges in his role, one very clear problem that emerged was turnover.  His department was a revolving door.  People came, people left, and he had no idea why they were leaving, and in truth, didn’t much care.  As I observed his communication with his team it became increasingly evident that most were disheartened and felt unappreciated.  Team work was lacking, and employee engagement was non-existent.  It became clear after a few interactions that things would have to change, but sadly, the Charlie dismissed suggestions on the need for changes in his communication technique.  When it came time to make some staffing changes he was one of the first persons we replaced.

Fortunately, most people I coach accept feedback much better than Charlie