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Brain Circuits

Do you know the right way to engage with your team?

IbyIMD+ Published 3 June 2022 in Brain Circuits • 3 min read

Many leaders feel their success, and their identities, are grounded in their technical knowledge and mastery of detail. This may be why, as we move up within an organization, many of us struggle to make the necessary shift from understanding the facets of strategic problems to working with teams to shape and guide the processes used to solve critical issues. The key to this is team engagement. There are many ways to engage with your team and understanding the right way at the right time can make a critical difference in your success as a leader.

The six modes of engagement

There are six different approaches leaders can apply.

  1. Decide and communicate

Frame the problem, identify potential solutions, do your own assessment, and decide without any input, informing the team what you have decided and why. Deciding without explaining is rarely an acceptable route. 

  1. Input seeking

Gather input from the team about ways to frame the problem and identify potential solutions, decide on your own framing, then identify and evaluate possible solutions (if appropriate, with supporting analytics from team members).

  1. Full framing

Frame the problem, specify the potential solutions, and direct the team to assess them and make a recommendation.

  1. Problem framing

Frame the problem and direct the team to identify and assess potential solutions and make a recommendation.

  1. Process guidance

Guide the team in (re)framing problems and/or developing and assessing potential solutions without providing your views.

  1. Full empowerment

Authorize the team to frame the problem, identify and assess potential solutions, and reach their own conclusions without providing substantive input or recommendations.

The mode you choose depends on the balance among forces pushing for more directive versus more empowering engagement modes. 

Forces pushing for lower-numbered (more directive) engagement modes 

  1. The problem is relatively unimportant and/or the solution is relatively obvious.  
  2. There is time pressure, so the decision must be made quickly. 
  3. There are irreconcilable differences among team members about how the problem should be framed, and/or about potential solutions, and efforts to engage the team are likely to exacerbate conflict. 
  4. The leader has a high degree of confidence in their ability to frame the problem, define the options, and make a good decision independently.  

Forces pushing for higher-numbered (more empowering) engagement modes

  1. There is value in developing the team’s problem framing and solving capabilities. 
  2. The leader has the time and energy to support this development. 
  3. It is acceptable for the team to make mistakes and learn from them.  

It’s possible for leaders to start with more empowering engagement modes and move to more directive ones if the team is not making sufficient progress. However, it’s difficult to move in the opposite direction, from more directive to more empowering. 


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 12 other books on leadership and negotiation. His book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking, explores how executives can learn to think strategically and lead their organizations into the future. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. Over the past 20 years, he has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and Harvard Business School, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers. At IMD, he directs the First 90 Days open program for leaders taking on challenging new roles and co-directs the Transition to Business Leadership (TBL) executive program for future enterprise leaders.


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