The Team Leader’s Guide To Engaging External Workers
Last Update: Oct 14, 2020

You are an engaged team leader and responsible for strategic assets and projects. You have a diverse team to manage. External workers are part of it. You are pleased with the expertise they bring. But above all, you value their self-reliance, which – you think – relieves you considerably of leadership tasks. 

But this belief and its resulting attitude bear inherent risks. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate you the potential pitfalls when leading external people, ways to avoid them and how to maintain a high level of engagement and commitment.

External knowledge workers are no self-operating machines

Prashant is taking off his headset. He has just finished his virtual meeting with the team leader of his European client. Every week he has to provide the status report on the software development project he is working on. Typically, the call is brief and to the point. Prasanth  gets checked-up on the issues of the preceding week and the progress made. There is never time for a personal talk. Now and then, the conference gets even cancelled due to time constraints. He is then asked to send his report by email and has to wait another week before talking to anybody in person. Today, there hasn’t again been any appreciation for what he has accomplished. He calls it a day and leaves the office saddened with the nagging feeling of being left out.

Why you should be concerned

Prasanth is an independent contractor. As such, he helps companies to meet their temporary demand for highly skilled workers at short notice. The global pool of people with special work arrangements, the Gig economy, has risen significantly. What people like Prasanth deem incredibly satisfying is the high degree of autonomy and the opportunities to express their competencies that those assignments often bring. But the perceived advantages often come at an emotional price. According to an EY survey (How the gig economy is changing the workforce), 58% of Gig workers believe that the permanent employees are treated better. To put it differently, almost 6 out of 10 contract workers don’t experience equity and – as a result -don’t feel genuinely included. Consequently, chances are 60% that your external worker feels disadvantaged!

What it looks like not to belong

“As outsiders, we often reach our limits. Groupthink can be so pervasive in companies, “says Petra, a former project consultant in a global investment bank. “In my project, I came across a significant weak point in the IT service delivery process. I brought it up with the responsible manager and offered to help with the solution. But my discretionary effort did not meet with approval. He made it unmistakably clear that it was not my business as a contractor to find faults with their organization. I should only do what I was asked for. Intimidated, ashamed, and with the bitter realization that I didn’t belong in that organization, I left his office. Shortly after, I left the job.

“Over the past decade, technology companies and their leaders have launched diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives, hoping to make employees of all backgrounds and experiences feel welcome in our industry, we failed,” states Pat Wadors. She also thinks that DEI programs can only be considered successful if they truly create a sense of belonging with all the identity groups of a diverse workforce.

Why is a deep sense of belonging so critically important? 

Recall the pain you felt during a past situation in which you were treated like a misfit. Contrast these feelings with the warmth and enjoyment when being with your family or best friends and you have the emotional answer.

Motivational science provides the rational response. A sense of belonging is one of three basic psychological needs. Its support and ultimate satisfaction will help move people into a state of high-quality motivation, engagement and well-being. Its frustration has a profound adverse effect. People are driven into apathy, active disengagement and ill-being. In short, satisfying people’s needs for belonging is a significant contributor to employee engagement.

What does it take to satisfy your people’s need for belonging?

Not much! The key to success lies with you, the team leader. It’s up to you to establish a micro-climate of inclusion and meaningful connections as a prerequisite for a deep sense of belonging. Below you will find our recommended best practice and intuitive guide to engaging your employees in general. The textual explanations focus on how that guide helps you to meet the needs of belonging for your external workforce.


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1. Develop your own optimal motivation

It all starts with you. Reflect on why you would focus on creating a sense of belonging. Do you act from a position of obligation and compliance or because you recognize its value? Your initiative will only bring about the expected results if you stand fully behind it. Secondly, reflect on your standpoint on diversity and inclusion. Can you exclude any unconscious bias?

2. Refine your team interventions

Review your specific team interventions on how to foster a stronger sense of belonging. Embed a particular welcome scenario for externals in your on-boarding process. Make it clear from the outset that they are fully qualified members of the project AND team. From a task delegation point of view, external workers can team-up with internals to achieve common goals, connecting and overcoming group-thinking. Put the external workers in your communication loop

3. Interact with empathy

Become sensitive enough to the feelings of your external workers. Try always to understand their perspective. The key lies with attentive and active listening. Talk less, listen more. Make their voice heard.

4. Value your peoples’ daily needs

External workers develop a sense of belonging if they have the impression they matter. Establish regular human moments, meet them in person or call them. Show interest in them from a personal perspective and demonstrate genuine and authentic careAppreciate their efforts and contributions to the team. Help them overcome issues. All too often they get stuck getting things done in cross-functional settings. They then rightly or falsely attribute it to their status as an external which further undercuts their sense of belonging.

5. Emanate trust and positivity

Be accessible. Be honest. Be dependable. Act consistently also in the minute things. Share your knowledge and provide access to vital information. Follow through on your support promises. Ask for their feedback and advice! Admit mistakes. Beware of your own moods.  Emotions are contagious.


You Need More Help On How To Meet The Needs Of Your External Workers?

We offer a unique mentoring program for team motivation and engagement. We have designed and adapted it precisely to the daily challenges of first-line leaders. It provides a wealth of immediately actionable motivational techniques and tools that address your knowledge workers’ actual needs. For more information please download our D.R.I.V.E program guide. For any questions and comments please contact us. We would be happy to hear from you.

R. B.

Consultant and mento