A fireman. A soldier. A police officer. A suicide bomber. What do all of these people have in common? They’re some of the most engaged workers I can think of.  They’re literally willing to put their lives on the line every day to do their jobs.  And it’s not for the money and stock options either! It got me thinking about what we can learn about what drives this kind of engagement and how we can unleash it in our workplaces (well, perhaps not the suicide bomber part!).

So I decided to do some research.  What I learned is that if we want to truly engage people we need to “Make It Personal”.  The more the work is aligned with the personal identity of the employee, the more engaged they are.  Personal identity is simply a set of beliefs each of us has. These beliefs are formed by our experiences and strongly drive our behavior. How did I discover this? By researching how suicide bombers are trained. It’s a simple 3 step process:

1) Break down old identity (recruit young boys when their identities are still open to being shaped, separate them from family, allow no outside contact, break them down with physical hardships like limited food, beatings, etc. to create feelings of alienation)

2) Frame up new identity (brain-wash to hate “the enemy”, no exposure to anything other than propaganda material)

3) Reward new identity (promise rewards in heaven, honor, and move them from alienation to feeling of belonging to this new group identity)

Military organizations around the world go through a similar (if not as extreme) process. Break down individual identity so that the new team identity is what will drive desired behavior.  Simon Sinek in his TEDTalk said If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.

Back to our somewhat kinder and gentler corporate environment, when we align a person’s personal identity to the work, it is also what unleashes employee engagement.  After all human brains generally work in the same way.  When identity is aligned, work becomes a source of self-expression. It becomes our calling.

Here lies the challenge: Sadly (sigh!) we cannot recruit young kids and brainwash them.  Sadly (sigh!) employees have access to all kinds of information (now more than ever) that doesn’t suit our purpose.  Sadly (sigh!) they can all leave (either physically) or mentally and emotionally (by being disengaged).  The latest data in fact does suggest that most employees still on our payroll have already left (only 35% are fully engaged).

What is missing? A kinder and gentler version of “Make It Personal”.

The data above shows that companies at the highest level of employee engagement have 3 times the profit margin of companies at the lowest. The most engaged employees in the organization feel a deep alignment with their team. They feel connected with their team’s mission, values, team members, and bosses.  They are willing to do the discretionary effort, persevere through tough challenges, be creative, and energized  because their leaders “Make It Personal”.  When personal identity is aligned with team identity:

–          We feel like we matter (our individual opinions are taken into account)

–          We are working toward a shared goal that we personally care about

–          We have something of value to contribute toward that goal

–          We feel like we belong (we buy into team identity)

On the other hand Mike Myatt, myth-buster and leadership advisor to Fortune 500 CEO’s in his Forbes blog shares some startling statistics based on employee interviews:

  • More than 30% believe they’ll be working someplace else inside of 12 months.
  • More than 40% don’t respect the person they report to.
  • More than 50% say they have different values than their employer.
  • More than 60% don’t feel their career goals are aligned with the plans their employers have for them.
  • More than 70% don’t feel appreciated or valued by their employer.

How do we turn this around? Here is a five step process to align team identity to personal identity:

1)  Get clear on team identity – The start of a new planning year or to kick-off a new team are excellent opportunities to ask ourselves the following questions. Even if we know the answers, does everyone else in the organization have the same answers?

–   What is the mission of this team?

–   How does this team’s mission align to the mission of the organization?

–   What specific strategic priorities do we have?

2)  Make It Personal – This is where great leaders differentiate themselves.  For the people that you work with, do you know:

–   How they define their personal brand?

–   Where are the areas they are most inspired to contribute?

–   What strengths do they most enjoy exercising?

“I must know you to grow you” says Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes®  Louisiana Kitchen, a global chain of 2000+ restaurants. She has a great blog about The Purpose of Leadership where she shares her philosophy on servant leadership.

3) Link team and personal identity – Discuss the links between the two. How does each contribute to the other?

4) Share the personal identity and linkages across the team – This is a great process for the group to bond with one another, understand and leverage strengths and motivators.

5) Enable personal and team identity – What are the resources, processes, talent needed to fulfill the team’s goals and personal goals?  Engage with the team in understanding what’s working, what’s missing. Make sure each person has a voice in the discussion.

How This Works

I recently did a workshop with a global Fortune 100 client taking them through the process.  Most organizations focus on the first step. Steps 2 to 5 are the most eye-opening. Team members discovered new talents, new ways to contribute to the team’s goals, and new ways to contribute to each other.  We want to use this as part of their annual goal setting process.  We also identified a way to take this process to their customers for powerful goal alignment with customers that builds stronger customer intimacy and loyalty.

One of the four key traits of transformational leaders is that they make their leadership personal – – paying attention to individuals’ strengths and motivators. It’s also the trait that differentiates great sales people. They make it personal. Our sales and marketing departments have taken individual customer information to a new level to revolutionize customer intimacy and develop more emotional connections with customers. It’s time for us as business leaders to take that same personalized approach with the people we work with. It’s time for HR teams and systems to enable that.

I would welcome connecting with you about a workshop that unleashes employee or customer engagement through this powerful 5-step process.   It will surely help you get stronger commitment to your goals and unleash employee creativity, contribution, and engagement.  As Stephen Covey said “You can buy a person’s hands but you can’t buy his heart. His heart is where his enthusiasm, his loyalty is.”

If this resonated for you, please comment, subscribe and share with others.

Showing 4 comments
  • dave

    Henna you lost all credibility when you decided to put suicide bombers at the same level as the public servants you mentioned.

    • Henna

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your open feedback. You are right that one group (public servants) are willing to give up their lives to protect others and the other does not.

      The intent is not to condone their behavior but to understand what causes people to be willing to give up their lives.

      It could be that the subject of suicide bombers is a turn-off for people and therefore a bit risky to write about. Nonetheless I appreciate your point of view and the effort you made to share your feedback.


  • Doug


    I don’t think you lost any credibility at all. Including a suicide bomber in the list of traditional heroes upset Dave’s sensibility (and understandably so), but that doesn’t mean that there is no point to be had.

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