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How engaged is your team? The 3 phases

Van Evans founded an orphanage in Peru.
Van Evans founded an orphanage in Peru.
Van Evans

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I recently interviewed Van Evans, a former software developer who created Generations Humanitarian, a non-profit organization to give Peruvian street children a home and a future. We were discussing one of Evans' orphanages in Peru when he shared three phases of growth for orphans that curiously parallel the stages of personal engagement.

The stabilization phase

“These street kids come in scared for their lives,” Evans explained. They are desperate. Insecure. They have no idea what’s ahead for them. They fear forced labor or some other sort of exploitation. It’s all they’ve known, so it’s all they can expect. During stabilization, kids hoard food and are suspicious of everyone. They may run away more than once and come back. But eventually they no longer feel threatened and choose to stay on their own.

The integration phase

During integration, orphans begin to feel like they fit in. They start to trust others. They learn to work and play with the other kids, doing dishes and chores, planting and weeding in the community garden. They start to understand the rewards of work. They learn to follow rules, listen to leaders and become part of a family. They begin to contribute. They become team players. For some kids, this is as good as it gets. They contribute what’s required to get what they need. They feel safe. They follow the rules. They do what needs to be done.

The dream phase

“When you spend your first few years of life just fighting for survival,” he said, “you rarely think about the future.” According to Evans, something magical happens when a child enters the dream phase. “They begin to think about the impact they can have on their future. They see a clear connection between effort and reward.” Most importantly, they begin to work with a purpose. “It’s like, for the first time, they realize they actually have a future. And not only do they have a future. They have control over what that future will be.”

Take away the extremes: the orphans, the poverty, the abandonment, the survival. And just consider the growth phases themselves: stabilize, integrate, dream.

They aren’t all that different from phases we go through in our work. They are mindsets that reflect how invested or engaged we are in success. Which begs the question: How personally engaged is your team?

Gallup reports 70 percent of the U.S. workforce is not fully engaged, reflecting that their attitude toward their current job is consistent with Evans' first two phases.

With that kind of national statistic, it’s a practical certainty that you have dispassionate, un-invested or disengaged people within your team. So what can you do about it?

First, realize that what motivates people isn’t all that complicated. The things that motivate us to bring our full energy to our work are the same for our teams. We all want to be involved in work that makes a difference. It’s the core reason why entrepreneurs make the decision to strike out on their own. It’s also the main reason we choose to join teams that are going places, making things happen and achieving better-than-expected results. We want to affect our future in positive ways. To make improvements, to affect outcomes, to reap the rewards of doing things that people love.

The best way to kill that personal engagement is to constrain people into a box of overly defined tasks, where they feel powerless to affect their work or their future. Where they feel like they are doing the same things day in and day out and don’t have permission to experiment with difference-making opportunities.

Of course we all need to deliver on our key job responsibilities but we also need a little room to explore, to discover, to experiment with ways to make something better. So if you want to engage your team, invite them to find a way to make a difference people love. Encourage them to think and act in the dream phase.

When you do this, you will find your team is much more creative and capable of creating new value than you ever imagined. And when your team is working to make a difference people love, you will see their engagement go through the roof.

David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of the New York Times best-seller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill). You can follow him on twitter @david_sturt or visit