5 lessons children can teach us about employee engagement

You’d think that with all of the books, seminars and coaching out there on building winning teams, we’d be doing a better job of engaging employees. But not according to a pair of studies noted in the latest issue of the Strategist, a quarterly magazine of the Public Relations Society of America:

  • A study conducted by Dale Carnegie Training found that just 23 percent of employees below the managerial level are “engaged,” meaning they feel enthusiastic, inspired and confident in their jobs.
  • A Gallup survey found that 70 percent of American workers are either “emotionally disconnected” or “actively disengaged” and therefore less likely to be productive.

“Gallup places the blame for a nation of alienated workers on managers and executives who have never learned basic people skills,” the Strategist reported.


One of the most important jobs a CEO has is to lead and motivate employees. Yet, time after time, we see folks in the C suite stumbling when it comes to basic communication.

Lego pool

Yes, it’s a Lego swimming pool, complete with two lounge chairs. Construction by Jay and Kylie; photo by Debbie Strickland.

I was thinking about this over the weekend as I spent time with Kylie, Debbie’s 6-year-old granddaughter. If you want to learn about engagement, spend some time with kids!

When Miss Kylie was 4, I wrote about the lessons she taught me about SMART goals. Here are some lessons she’s taught me about engagement:

1. Authentic interaction goes a long way. I love getting down on the floor and playing at the same level as kids. This weekend, Kylie and I built a Lego swimming pool. When you allow yourself to enter a child’s world, you truly are engaged. And they know it.

Lesson: You rarely see CEOs connect at the rank-and-file level; but when they do and are able to communicate their vision in plain terms, you know the organization is firing on all cylinders.

2. Learn from everyone, regardless of who they are. I discovered two things about my iPhone from Kylie this weekend: How to take a screen shot of any app you have open and how to play music from iTunes when it’s in a game app. (No more annoying game music!) I learned this from a 6-year-old!

Lesson: Why are managers so unwilling to learn from their subordinates? Their customers? Their vendors? If you are open to new ideas, suggestions and feedback, there is a whole new world of possibilities awaiting you. Some of the best ideas come from those on the front lines.

3. Focus, focus, focus. Kids may have short attention spans, but when they are eating, watching TV or playing a game, they are focused! If you are not equally focused, they will notice.

Lesson: Give your team 100 percent when they need it. When you talk to an employee one-on-one, make eye contact. Don’t be texting or checking emails. Organizations need to stay focused, too. A disengaged employee is an unfocused employee. It’s bad for morale and bad for business.

4. Live in the moment. You score no points for making promises about next time or reminding kids that they already had a cupcake 5 minutes ago. It’s all about the present. The good news is that they don’t hold grudges or let bad thoughts get in the way of enjoying the task at hand. Each moment is lived joyfully, without anxiety or regret.

Lesson: While long-term planning is certainly necessary, it’s the day-to-day hassles that bog us down. Let your team know that you understand what they’re going through. An unexpected compliment, a surprise bagel, a free lunch—start your own mini-traditions that keep work upbeat and lively. It’s contagious, and it can also improve the interactions your staff has with customers.

5. Use your imagination. Children have a tremendous capacity for imagination, curiosity and wonder. You see it in their play, in their questions and in the confidence they have in their world.

Lesson: I like the saying, “You have to dream before your dreams can come true,” attributed to former Indian President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. Make it a habit to ask “what if?” questions and stretch when it comes to goal-setting. Give your team permission to think big.

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4 Responses to 5 lessons children can teach us about employee engagement

  1. Steve Strickland says:

    Jay, very nice article. I love how you drew the nexus between kids and corporate world management. All were valid and relevant points, which echoed much of what I have heard in a number of leadership courses over the years. Loved the article, nice work. 🙂

  2. Your blog draws upon the key elements of childhood–fearless, authentic interaction and focus on the present that are essential for excellence today.

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