Productive Leaders

Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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A Military Look at Employee Engagement

Corporate managers frequently complain that employees are unfocused, unproductive, and struggle to work cohesively. Employees not actively engaged generally lack interest in the goals of the organization. In economics, we call this the ‘principle-agent problem’ meaning employees look out for their own interests before considering their employer’s interests.

Motivating employees and ensuring their engagement in the organization’s goals is a widespread challenge, and some military practices may prove useful in strengthening employee engagement in your organization.

Military training at all levels is designed to quickly instill the principle that the interests of the organization and mission supersede self-interest. So just how does the military garner such employee engagement?

1.     Start with trust. Trust people to do their job until something goes wrong. Then fix the problem quickly. Understand that people will make mistakes, and as long as they learn from those mistakes, fix the problem, and move on.

If you trust your people, they will trust you until you give them a reason to doubt. Military personnel understand that there are times when unpopular decisions must be made. Part of building a cohesive team is making sure that people understand decisions are made fairly and objectively. People can handle bad news, and making sure they know what is going on builds trust that you will keep them informed.

2.     Be honest. Employees appreciate honesty. If you don’t know something, say you’ll find out. Then find out and get back to them. Never try to lie or deceive an employee; chances are, they will see right through you. This destroys your credibility and decreases trust. Employees would rather have incomplete news now than speculate on what could be going on.

3.     Build Teamwork by keeping promises. If you make a promise, keep it. Trust takes time to build and can be destroyed in an instant. Leaders understand that creating trust means that they have to be honest with their people, especially when there is uncertainty, and when promulgating difficult plans. That trust is what allows managers to relay information and assign jobs that are not popular and may be dangerous. Teamwork solidifies when employees trust their leaders’ decisions in challenging situations and trust that their needs are being considered. 

4.     Be a decisive and confident. People like to know what direction they’re heading, and where they and the organization are going. For employees, leaders who waffle over small decisions cannot be trusted with big decisions. When faced with a decision, gather all information, make a firm decision, take responsibility, and move forward.

5.     Communicate clear, common goals. Great leaders understand that planning comes from higher authority and that the execution rests with them. If the process and goals are unclear, resources and productivity may be wasted and ultimately compromise the mission. Whether a manager agrees with higher decisions or not, a good manager always leads with positive motivation that “today we are going to do this.”   Employees must clearly understand their roles, their ability to impact the success of the organization, and be held accountable for their roles and adherence to standards.

6.     Inspire confidence. I don’t know a pilot who doesn’t feel a surge of adrenaline when attempting a night-landing on the rolling deck of an aircraft carrier, but it is the job they train for, which instills confidence and skill. Great leaders understand the steps needed to train for even the most difficult job.  They know when to be encouraging, when to be critical, and when to be compassionate. Confidence in your employees is contagious.

7.     Leaders hold other leaders accountable. With leadership comes tremendous responsibility. Immediate supervisors provide substantial influence. They must be trained properly as a manager and then be expected to perform well. If the manager is not performing, then that manager’s supervisor must act quickly to remedy the situation and adjust their behavior. Management is hands-on and managers must know what is going with their people. In the military, managers are held accountable for the actions of the people underneath them.

8.     Feedback should be prompt, constructive, and focused on the desired outcome. Feedback lets your employees know that there is a better way of doing their job and that you want them to focus on doing that activity. Giving someone course corrections to improve their productivity makes them a more valuable employee. It gives them a chance to improve at work. If you don’t provide feedback, you are allowing them to become obsolete. Feedback also helps them know when they are doing things right. Let people know when they are doing a great job so they continue to do their jobs well.

9.     Fix the problem, not the blame. Great leaders don’t make excuses or blame others. Instead, they take the blame when things go wrong and provide praise when things go right. Instead of worrying about who was to blame, fix the process which caused the failure. When the process is fixed, the problem likely won’t be repeated. That doesn’t mean the people who make mistakes should not be corrected, but it does mean that you look for the underlying problem and fix it.

10.  Ask the hard questions and then listen. You can’t fix problems if you can’t find them. Sometimes people don’t like to tell the boss when there is a problem for fear of how the boss will react or because the boss makes it clear that they don’t want to be bothered. Don’t be that boss. Ask the probing questions and be prepared to listen.  “What are we working on today?” or “What can be improved?” and know your direction and goals.

Ultimately, great leaders understand the need for accountability at all levels. They provide clear communication, and constructively seek continuous improvement across the organization. They look for problems so that they can provide solutions, and they build trust while trusting others.

Mary C. Kelly, PhD is CEO of Productive Leaders (, a firm dedicated to increasing profit growth. Author of Master Your World: 10 Dog-Inspired Leadership Lessons to Improve Productivity, Profits and Communication, 15 Ways to Grow Your Business in Every Economy, 360 Degrees of Leadership and Not Your Parents’ Money Book, Mary is an international business speaker and consultant.  


  1. John Sileo, Trust | Influence | Fraud

    Mary, thanks for this article. We have so much to learn from the military (and from you) about effective, practical leadership. I spend a lot of my time studying the role of trust in corporations and leadership (particularly after catastrophes like the Joe Paterno fiasco at Penn State), and most of your points above are core values in the building of trust and influence within your sphere of power (what you seek to change). I look forward to continuing to learn from you. Thanks for your insights.


    Your treatise on employee engagement is appreciated and need to be refreshed in the minds of managers on daily basis. However iten 5 “Communicate clear, common goals” need to add that employees must be made to see that the managers are highly committed to the common goal. This is the bane of progress in the so-called third world; particularly those that have the capacity to develop but are not.
    Another area to be careful about is handling innovations. Irrespective of the level of education and status in the organisation, whoever brings up an innovation should be a principal actor in the development and execution of the programme


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