Building a Culture of Engagement

Engagement has been a huge buzzword for the past several years in the business world. There are statistics showing high engagement is correlated with lower absenteeism, higher retention, higher safety records, higher quality records, higher customer satisfaction, and higher productivity and profitability. Employers stand to reduce costs of healthcare, lost work or productivity, turnover and recruiting, and increase profits and customer retention. Check out an infographic on the ROI of employee engagement here.

There are different ways to measure engagement, and there are different ways to approach improving engagement. In this post, I want to focus on ways to improve engagement in terms of how well a team utilizes internal resources and promotes sustainability; how employees lean in to their work at a sustainable pace, and how they prioritize recovery to maintain health and productivity.

What is rewarded?

In most behavior change models, there is some sort of reward (intrinsic or extrinsic) for desired behaviors; we wan to reinforce what we want to see. Each workplace has a culture of behaviors that are rewarded, and behaviors that are discouraged. I say culture of behaviors because it doesn’t really matter what is written in policy manuals, there are certain things that seem okay, normal, or preferred in a certain workplace, and things that aren’t. These things send powerful unspoken messages to the team members and can cause discord, confusion, and disengagement. For example, it may be stated that work-life balance is a priority on the team, but if team members are praised for putting in overtime or always being available, the team receives the message that 24/7 commitment is expected over work-life balance.

Here are some examples of common workplace behaviors. Which behaviors are rewarded (formally or informally) on your team?

  • Coming in early and staying late or prioritizing your time

  • (does it make you uncomfortable if you arrive to work after everyone or leave early, even if flexible work schedules are in place?)

  • Putting in overtime on a project or efficiency and efficacy of work

  • (do leaders and team members seem more impressed by how much time you invested on a project or by how efficiently you handled a task?)

  • Always being available or protecting your time off

  • (do leaders and team members seem to show irritation or confusion if you have clear boundaries on how and when you are available?)

  • Individual efforts or collective and collaborative efforts

  • (do leaders and team members praise individuals that “took initiative” and got the job done, or team members working together to solve a problem?)

  • Work related activities or work and personal activities

  • (do leaders and team members ask how you spend your personal time or show interest in your life outside of work?)

It’s a time to rally (or it isn’t)

This one is huge! In our jobs and in our lives, there are projects, disasters and events where it’s a time to rally. By rally, I mean it’s a time to dive in and put in over 100% effort and rally all of your resources to get this job done or manage this crisis. Intense effort, focus and resources are vital to dealing with this situation.

The thing is, this should actually be a small percentage of our lives and workloads. Not every situation a time to rally. At my last job, we were a high performing team that cared deeply about our mission to help Soldiers build resilience and performance. We were also burning out. A big factor in many team members burning out was an inability to discern when it was a time to rally (all out effort) and when it wasn’t, and we did this at a cost to our wellbeing.

Now let me clarify something before going any further. If it’s not a time to rally, it doesn’t mean it’s a time to slack off or half-ass a job. When it’s not a time to rally, continue to do good work at a sustainable pace that’s mindful of yours and others resources. If it’s a time to rally, it’s a time for all out sprint efforts.

The thing about sprint efforts is they are short, intense bouts of effort. If you watch sprint-based athletic events, you see athletes put in all out effort. Then you see them hunched over, sucking wind, focusing on recovery. Sprinting isn’t a sustainable pace. You can’t continue sprinting indefinitely, and you need time to replenish your energy systems before you can sprint again.

Look at the work that you do and create a ranking system. Some types of work on that list are a time to rally and need that all out effort. Some types of work on that list just aren’t. Also, the things that make it to the “time to rally” list should be less than 10% of the workload.

The most important thing to factor in when it’s a time to rally is recovery. After that rally period, we need to focus on replenishing the energy and resources we spent during that rally period because we depleted them. We can’t go from rally/spring speed to normal speed and expect to keep going.

RAG Cycles

Employees with high engagement know what is expected of them, and they have the resources and tools they need to do their job. These are critical factors in engagement. Similar to we can’t be in rally/sprint mode all the time and we need to recover, we need predictable rhythms in the workload. We can’t keep putting all the hard projects on the same people, we can’t sustain top speed, and we need to build in periods of recovery (beyond weekends and vacation time).

A way the United States Army did this is by creating RAG training cycles. RAG stands for Red Amber Green. Each training cycle was color coded, and had certain expectations of training, pace, readiness and recovery built in. Each unit rotates through these training cycles on a predictable timeline. Leaders can look ahead at their training calendar and see which cycle they will be in at a given point of time, and plan their training and efforts accordingly.

Green cycle was a period where a unit was ready to deploy. This meant they were fully trained and equipped and ready to deploy to a combat zone to complete their mission. Soldiers put in long hours, the mission always came first, and emphasis was put on things that enabled them to continue at this pace.

Red cycle was a period where the unit was in recovery mode. They had come off a deployment. Emphasis is put on recovery, health and wellness, and reintegrating back into the family. Soldiers may have appointments and show up for formations, but they aren’t kept at work for long hours so they can focus on other things.

Amber cycle is an in-between period. Soldiers are gearing up for green cycle by focusing on building and refining their mission-specific skills and correcting any deficits. Soldiers are putting in regular hours (more hours than red cycle but fewer hours than green cycle).

Here’s something I find neat about RAG cycles: they can be staggered over different units. One unit may be in green cycle while another is in red cycle. This means at any given point in time, you have one unit that is green, or good to go and ready to deploy, you have one unit that is amber, or actively involved in training and can be a “backup” for the green unit, and you have one unit that is red, or focused on recovery and not able to be called up right now.

If you lead a team, different individuals can be in different cycles at a given time. This allows for individuals to prioritize recovery after those rally/sprint projects because other team members can take on projects.

If you lead a team of teams, you can stagger teams so each team knows when their busy season will be an when their recovery season will be.


Headquarters, Department of the Army. (2018). Training (ADP 7-0). Retrieved from

#engagement #resilience #ResilientTeams #team

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