Increasing Team Member Engagement Through Dovetailing

January 9, 2015

If you are familiar with carpentry, you are familiar with a dovetail joint. Considered one of the strongest ways to join two pieces of wood, as you would for the corner of a drawer, the name comes from the shape of the interlocking “teeth” in the joint that get wider as they get longer, similar to the shape of a dove’s tail. In this joint, two different pieces of wood are joined together to create a strong, almost unbreakable connection.

There is a powerful management technique that takes this same approach. In management, dovetailing joins two different elements to create a strong connection. The two elements are the aspirations of your individual team members and the needs of your organization. When you can align the professional and personal goals of a team member with the needs of your organization, the result is a committed and engaged employee.

Dovetailing involves two simple steps. First, get to know the members of your team. Let them tell you about their professional and personal goals and interests. Find out what really drives them. It is important to note that this is not something that can be rushed. You will need to build some healthy and deserved trust with the team member before you ask him or her about these types of interests. Often, you will be able to discern them by just being a good listener. As a rapport develops, employees will become more likely to tell you about their non-work activities. Be attentive to what they share.

A good question to get this kind of discussion started is: “What are your professional goals? What do you want to be doing three years from now?” Most employees will be pleased that you are interested. Be fully open about why you are asking. Tell him or her that you are always looking for ways to blend the interest and aspirations of your team members with the needs of the organization.

The second step is to be attentive for opportunities to align these personal aspirations with what your organization needs to accomplish.

dovetailing image

This diagram presents the concept of dovetailing graphically.

Here is an example: Say you learn that one of your employees is working to learn to speak and write Spanish. A few weeks later, you are sitting in a staff meeting being led by your boss when he or she mentions that the company is close to a creating a formal strategic alliance with a company in Central America. Perfect. There may be a way to get your team member involved with that initiative for everyone’s benefit. Your team member will be able to improve and utilize his Spanish. The company will have an improved ability to communicate with the strategic partner, and you will be a part of an exciting new initiative.

Or let’s say you are running a marketing operation and one of your team members who does market data collection and analysis tells you that she hopes to transition into information technology some day. When there is a need for staff level interaction with the information technology department, that employee is the obvious choice. She is excited about the exposure to an area of interest and you get an employee that will be extra engaged. Will you lose her ultimately to an IT role? Probably. But you would lose her anyway sooner or later and in the meantime you have a team member that is engaged and enthusiastic.

The more you can employ dovetailing, the more dedicated your team will be. You will also be addressing one of your primary responsibilities as a manager and a leader—developing your people.

This post is drawn from the 6th edition of the management classic The First-Time Manager (AMACOM) which has sold more than 250,000 copies and is available in English, French, and Chinese editions.

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Creating stronger connections between your organization and employees will lead to a more productive environment. Learn more with these AMA resources and seminars.

About The Author

JIM McCORMICK is the former Chief Operating Officer of the fifth largest architectural firm in the United States. A full time speaker and organizational consultant, he works with organizations to help them identify and incentivize their optimum risk posture. More information is available at:

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