Hearts and Minds: The Key to Employee Engagement

Hearts and Minds

When I was Director of Publications & Marketing at Cornell, my staff and I would focus on developing stories that would trigger an emotional reaction before diving into any subject matter that would request anything from our audiences.

Whether we were helping our partners in the educational development department reach their fundraising goals, or partnering with HR and Admissions to recruit the best talent, this was a defining part of our role as strategic communicators.

Through years of research, we knew that the key to motivating any action from target audience members was first to stir their emotions, and then to challenge their intellect.

We had a name for this strategy: “Hearts and Minds

Crucial Conversations

As a leadership consultant, I find that the same strategy applies to engaging staff members. Managers must communicate with staff as a critically important target audience.  Just like marketing professionals must engage their target audience to prompt the desired outcome, managers need to engage their staff in order to motivate them and maximize their performance.

Marketing professionals learn about the needs of their target audiences by asking questions about them.

As managers, leaders can do the same to understand what matters to their critically important audience: their employees.  Below is a series of specific questions managers can ask to understand the needs of their staff members.

Question #1

Are they afraid?

A lesson I learned as a competitive tennis player was not being afraid to lose.  Whenever that fear manifested, I would tense up and my game would suffer.  The best approach was to relax and enjoy the game.

Good follow-up questions to this one include:

  • Are your employees relaxed?
  • Do they enjoy their work?
  • Have you asked?

Chances are that there are factors or dynamics that affect the staff’s feeling of safety.  These factors can include collaborating with a difficult customer or colleague, possible layoffs, or simply talking to the boss.

As (strategic) communicators, managers need to know what is causing fear and plan their future communications to address these issues, whatever they are.

It is very difficult for anyone to reach our hearts when we are afraid.

Question #2

What’s the team culture?

A big factor that can affect our sense of safety is the team culture.

Here are some related questions:

  • Is the culture one of respect for others?
  • Do staff members feel confident and are willing to take risks?
  • Is the culture better defined by the opposite of the above characteristics?

If you want to get even more specific, you might also ask the following:

  • Does the “big boss” respect people’s time, or will she/he call people in at anytime without regard to what they are working on?
  • Are meetings organized?  Do managers listen, or do they interrupt before staff can finish a sentence?
  • Is it ok to make mistakes, or are people silently punished when they make one?

To get from our hearts to our minds, leaders need to establish a culture where staff members feel respected and organized.  Listening and understanding must be valued highly.  Also, staff should trust in others when they make mistakes.  This is the kind of culture where people want to work.

Question #3

Are people using their strengths?

When I started using the book Now Discover Your Strengths by Buckingham and Clifton, a consultant asked this:

“Are your employees using their strengths?”

My answer was an arrogant:


I then explained:

“Designers are doing design, developers are writing code, and my project managers are managing projects!  What kind of stupid question is that?! “

On Arrogance and Ignorance

As usual, my arrogance was a sign of my ignorance.

I had no idea what “playing to someone’s strengths” meant.  As I learned shortly thereafter, in order to play to our staff’s strengths, we have to identify them!

Of course, I had never done that.  Like so many managers, I would focus on weaknesses and all performance plans were based on addressing weaknesses!  For example, I was terrible with numbers and spreadsheets, so I made myself work on budgets and went to training on Excel.

I hated it!!!

Focus on Strengths, Not Weaknesses

To engage staff, we must enable organizations where staff can be their best!  Focusing on  weaknesses until they become strengths is a myth.  Identifying and maximizing our strengths is the surest way to become the best at what we do. This may take some work but the good news is that there is an already established methodology.

Managers don’t have to invent this on their own.

By focusing on strengths, in a safe and organized culture, leaders can then work on inspiring their staff.  Without safety, respect and strengths, inspiration is very difficult.

Below is a basic table managers can use to plan communications and target specific challenges that prevent employee engagement.

Target Audience: Staff Members

Chart - Al Gonzalez 468

See LinksProcess for engaging staff during layoffs &  Strengths Dashboard

Costly Disengagement

As you may know, disengaged employees are costing our economy billions of dollars in lost productivity.
Gallup surveys show that the vast majority of workers are disengaged, with an estimated 23 million “actively disengaged.”
The cost to the U.S. economy has been pegged at over $300 billion annually.  This epidemic is something our leaders need to address quickly.

My strong advice: start by reaching the hearts and minds of your staff.


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Al Gonzalez is Founding Partner at GIVE Leadership
He helps clients develop trust and leverage the strengths of all team members
Email | LinkedIn |  Twitter | Web

Image Sources: nationalinterest.org

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