Getting Employees Engaged: When They Really Don’t Care


Dustin Walling is a very good friend of mine who works with the construction and technology industries on the gap between management and experts within a company, or "performance management" as he calls it. Anyway, he wrote a great post about team building at a Caterpillar dealership that I want to share with you. Enjoy!

When Doug Fabick became the 4th generation owner of Fenton, MO-based Fabick CAT, a Caterpillar Tractor dealership, his father left him with one key piece of advice, “Build your team.” According to a Gallup Organization case study, heeding these words netted Doug a 600% return on investment.

Research by Gallup shows that most companies are anything but a team. On average, only about 20% of employees are actively engaged, producing 90% of the real progress. Another 60% are disengaged – they may occasionally contribute, but they just don’t care. The final 20% are poison, “actively disengaged” and letting the world know their discontent. If you’re an owner reading this, it’s easy to let your blood boil. It’s easy to let your mind drift around the office to the desks that currently hold your lumps of deadweight or to the cell phone number of your truly “virtual” employee. It’s easy to think things like, “Those worthless @#&%&@.” There’s just one problem: You (or your designee) picked them. You also trained them. You are ultimately responsible for the environment that motivates or demotivates them. That’s not to say everyone is worth keeping, but it is to say it’s up to you to do better than 1 in 5 “keepers.” The advice from Doug’s father to build his team was spot-on. In Fabick’s case, surveys of staff showed only 16% cared enough to truly engage and move the company forward. And because the company was a Caterpillar franchise, people were the obvious difference maker – or deal breaker – between franchises where products and most services were identical. Here are three of the simplest things Fabick did – and you can, too – in order to turn the situation around:

Hire for Fit

Fabick CAT began placing huge importance on whether a person’s natural attitude and skills were the right fit for the job. For example, it’s now possible to measure both a job and a candidate and get a comparison report of the two to see not only how well the applicant fits the job, but whether he or she shares the values of the company. By moving current employees where they “fit” and more carefully selecting new ones, Doug was able to see immediate improvements because the company had more positions filled with people possessing not only the right skills but also the right attitude.

Coach People

Ok, admit it. There are things you wish your people would do differently. So tell them. At least once a month and preferably twice, meet one-on-one with each of your direct reports. Review:

  • What they’re doing well in their job.

  • What, specifically, they can change to do better?

  • What is working well from their perspective?

  • What they need in order to do better from their perspective.

  • What specific things you both will work on next time? Write these down.

Notice this meeting is not about assigning work; it’s about communicating about how the two of you cooperate to get work done. It may not seem natural at first, but soon you’ll find staff respond to this new opportunity to be heard by engaging more. Be sure to have your direct reports repeat this process with theirs.

Coach Teamwork

A third, powerful technique, and one which Fabick CAT employed with great success is coaching teamwork. But teams didn’t just happen – Fabick made them happen. Here’s how you can do the same:

  • Create teams within departments, or cross-area “strike forces” for complex projects or your whole company if it’s small.

  • Get involved. Help the team identify one goal important to the company they can tackle.

  • Mentor. Help the team create a plan for how to make the goal happen.

  • Back away, but monitor. As leaders emerge, let them take over.

For Fabick, the key was that management didn’t take chances with results. They actively engaged to ensure teams got off to a good start and gathered steam, then let them progress on their own.


In the case of Fabick CAT, 100% of what was invested in employee engagement was returned in the form of reduced costs, and a 600% return in the form of increased revenue. Not bad. What would it mean to you to have 10% or even 20% greater engagement this year? What would you hope to accomplish with the increased productivity?

Dustin Walling Associates helps companies improve performance through strategy, operational excellence, and performance management. Dustin Walling can be reached at

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