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Seven Employee Engagement Lessons from the Gridiron

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It’s that time of the year when the world is obsessed with American football. Even those of us whose team is not involved in the playoffs (sigh, better luck next year my beloved San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants) get caught up in the drama and action. As I was watching the playoff games, I started to think about how football relates to the field of employee engagement.

There are so many lessons that we can all learn from the game of football. You don’t need to know how to play the game to find value in what happens on the field.

1. Engaging your employees (and yourself) is not a contact sport, it is a connect sport. It’s not about hitting someone as hard as you possibly can as you chase him down the field. It’s about looking them in the eye and making a one-on-one connection. Even opposing players stare intently at each other before the play to assess what they believe is going to happen. Think about a cornerback watching the quarterback’s eyes as he snaps the ball or the defensive lineman carefully eyeing the offensive guard across the line.

2. Alignment is what matters. The coach is responsible for leading and setting the goals for his team. He needs to make sure that all his players are aligned with those goals. There must be complete transparency in the workplace (in this case the locker room and playing field) as to where you are going and how you will get there.

3. Don’t just tell me what to do, tell me why it matters. Setting context is a key role of the coach and a leader. Simply barking orders at people won’t engage them, but if you tell them why you believe this is the right thing to do, your team will rise to the task with commitment and passion.

4. One size does not fit all. There are 53 people on the active roster of a football team at any time. Each one of them has a different trigger for their own engagement and it is imperative that the coach knows what drives his players. What is important to one player might not mean that much to someone else. Those engagement triggers are crucial to achieving engagement.

5. You don’t usually reach your goals alone. Football is a team sport that requires full commitment, passion and engagement from everyone on the team. A running back needs a blocker to open a hole for him and a quarterback needs his offensive line to hold off the defense so he has time to make the play. If even one member of the team is disengaged and not giving their full effort, it can have a devastating effect on the field through miscues like a fumble or missed tackle.

6. It’s important to never give up on your goals and stay engaged until the very last moment. The Seattle-Green Bay playoff game was a prime example of this. Even though the Seahawks were playing terribly for three quarters of the game, they never lost sight of the prize at the end. The coach continued to keep them aligned on their ultimate goal and team members remained steadfast in their support of each other. Being so incredibly connected to each other and the mission and purpose of the organization allowed each player to never lose hope as they all put forth their best efforts.

7. A thank you really matters. Engagement is what motivates people to not only feel dedicated to their job and their life, but also to feel rewarded by what they do and how they do it. It pushes people to look at things differently and go above and beyond, not because they have to but because they want to. The two coaches taking their teams to the Super Bowl are complete opposites. Pete Carroll is boisterous and demonstrative and runs on to the field to hug someone who made a great play. Bill Belichick is quiet and thoughtful, and relies on a quick pat on the back to recognize someone. One style is no more effective than the other; it’s all about appreciating and recognizing great work.

Employees want to be part of something bigger than themselves and part of the underlying success of the team. They want to be energized by their job and look forward to going to work, willing to put in the extra effort it takes to make their organization a success, or in this case the winner of the Super Bowl. Here’s to an engaging and passionate game on February 1st for all involved, including those of us that are watching from our couches. No matter what ‘game’ we play, the message is the same. It’s all about starting out connected, committed and dedicated to a shared goal.

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