Engage Your Core

It was one of the worst days I’d had at work to date. Everything had gone wrong. At the time I was managing the logistics of a well known retailer and every other day started with a truck delivery of over 2,000 individual boxes. To successfully manage the unloading of a fifty five foot long trailer of freight you need a team large enough execute the task of moving literally tons of merchandise and disperse it neatly across a big box store.

Half of my team called out.

I did have my best, my rock stars, the ones that stood by me through thick and thin. They were the ones on whom I could count, but due to situations like this, I was slowly working them into the ground. I also had the worst of my worst. The ones there because they couldn’t afford to skip a paycheck and we were willing to give them one for showing up apparently, so why not?

The ones that called out though…the ones that crippled my team that day. I can’t tell you their names, but in hindsight I can tell you how important they were to me and the success of our process. I feel terrible to this day that I’ve forgotten whom they were.

–  and I own every bit of that.

I spent some time during my carer in Human Resources and I remember the importance and significance of how the team feels at work. I’ll admit feelings can be a bit exhausting, but an understanding of how to manage them is critical in today’s society. I’ve always worked for companies that take a lot of time to invest in company culture. My company would measure our success based on responses to a survey, and it wasn’t until recently that I realized where the true problem in improving the culture of your workplace lies.

There are basically three groups of employees at work.

1. The Top 10% – the ones with whom you are invested in their true potential and growth, but to be honest take a lot of your attention – sometimes needlessly.

They are an impressive and elite group. Giants amongst ants in the day-to-day war your business is waging with the world around you. They often feed (sometimes tirelessly) on high praise and are often devastated by any hint of disappointment. They want to be great and sometimes even thrive on the idea thinking they are the only top performer you have. “What would you do without me?” That thought gallops across their mind from time to time and dangerously tips the scale towards them thinking of abandoning you if they don’t get that promotion…and soon.

2. The Bottom 10% – the ones that consume your time and emotional bandwidth due to you  (hopefully) managing their performance.

They are the bane of your career’s existence. They are the ones your boss rolls his or her eyes about and then wonders if you’re even doing your job. They are either the most clever and deceitful or the most clueless and lazy of all those you see on a day to day basis. Both versions are toxic and may be the end of any emotional balance you hope to have while working. If you’re doing something about them, keep up the good fight. If you’re not, you’re perpetuating your own misery and you deserve it.

3. The Core (or pretty much 80% of your team) – the ones that are cast aside because they aren’t the other 20% demanding your attention.

They are your work horses that do the job with little to no resistance. They are generally happy, complain minimally and often go unnoticed. They are truly “out of sight, out of mind.” You depend of them because they stabilize your business. You neglect them because you’re sure, “Oh they’re just fine. I can worry about other things.”

Don’t kid yourself. You can’t and shouldn’t worry about other things. This cycle of team engagement leads your entire team down a dark path and has the potential to create a perfect storm of negative culture.

Your turnover happens at the top because they’re promoted or the didn’t quite seal the deal and give up. The ones that don’t give up stick around because you’re spinning your wheels trying to help them figure it out while balancing the needs of the business. They also become disgruntled and begin to (unintentionally) rally the core middle and undermine all of your efforts.

Your bottom performers are fired, quit voluntarily or, what’s worse, stay because you’ve ineffectively managed their performance. When they stick around, they are the the toxin that slowly disintegrates the delicate fabric of your working environment.

Ok, I’ve painted kind of a bleak picture, but if we are being honest with ourselves we’ve all seen some version of this story.

The question is how do we stop it? Well, we won’t stop it entirely, but being an effective leader is about being proactive, not reactive. Here are some things that I’ve done in the past to try and balance these three categories of team members

Prioritize Your Core when Possible

This does take a little bit of legwork and intentionality. If you have touch bases with your team on a regular basis, make sure to put the core at the top of your priority list. Also, if you have back to back connections, make sure to put the middle first. They drain the least of your energy and you’ll be able to give them your all. You won’t be able to slack off on the top or bottom 10 because they won’t let you.

Connect with Your Core on a Casual Basis More Often

When not speaking with your time privately, make it a point to engage your core (just like a workout) more often during day-to-day functions. A “hello” or “how is your family?” goes a long way with this type of team member. Don’t just ask them and forget. Remember what they tell you and follow up on details they’ve shared with you in the future.

Recognize Your Core EVERY Chance You Get

We often make the assumption that the Core 80% of our teams are the happiest and most satisfied because they aren’t saying anything.


Well, not necessarily wrong, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take every opportunity to provide specific and positive recognition. Does this take effort? Yes. Is it time consuming? YES. The win is it will engage your team positively and the benefits are exponential.

I spend a LARGE amount of my time these days sifting through metrics and satisfaction scores in the hopes to find ways to provide on the spot recognition for my team. I know my boss taking a moment and providing positive feedback ALWAYS gives me a boost

Have a Plan for Every Connection

This rule applies for each category of team member. We are creatures of habit, and whether most of us like to admit or not, we crave structure and organization. Preparing your feedback and development strategies in advance might seem like a time vampire, it’s actually a MASSIVE time saver because it causes your connections to have substance. It sends a significant message to each:

  1. Top 10% – I’m in this with you. I’ve thought about this in advance. Let’s get you to the level you’d like to be.
  2. The Core – You and your work matter to me. I cannot do this without you. Thank You.
  3. Bottom 10% – I know what I’m doing. You’re not performing at your best. Follow these steps to improve if you’d like to continue our working relationship.

These aren’t based on data or research, just on overall observations I’ve had as I’ve tried to perfect my management style with my team. What I will say is these methods have worked for me in the past. The real trick to remember is that everyone with whom you work matters. They matter because at the end of the day they have the potential to add value to each other, your customers, and to your business.

If you’re only engaging 20% of your team, expect results of similar proportion to your team’s true potential.

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