As Barry Flack opens with in his excellent blog The slow death of employee engagement, there are few people who think that having an engaged and motivated workforce isn’t a good thing.
The problem is, as Barry points out, the concept is very new and with the exception of a few disruptive tech companies who have sandpits in their canteens and a pool table in the boardroom, most businesses have been around long enough to remember the days when all they needed to do to engage with their staff was to pay them on time.
Today those same companies look at employee engagement in the same way a bloke in his 40’s looks at a teenager who wears his trousers halfway down his arse.
Those were many of the same companies that used to hire managers who could actually manage people – thus negating the need to bring in employee engagement consultants to sprinkle the business with smiley face stickers and urge them to hire some failed hippie to be their ‘Head of People Care’ on about 100K a year.
Am I being too simplistic here by thinking that a lot of employee engagement issues could be solved by companies training their managers in how to become better man-managers? Maybe.
But anecdotally, I’ve met more people who have cited great managers as being a major influence on their career than have waxed lyrical about ergonomic office furniture or team awaydays.
The whole managing people versus employee engagement issue reminds me of an exchange that allegedly happened during the making of the film The Marathon Man, between the two main actors; Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that the memorable scene was the one where the on-the-run Nazi turned dentist (played by Olivier) tortures the history student (played by Hoffman) by drilling into his teeth without anaesthetic.
To play that scene Hoffman felt he needed to look and feel very rough and so, to prepare for the filming, he put himself through a lot of personal discomfort by not eating for a day, staying up all night and not changing his clothes or showering. Knowing Hoffman, he may well have punched himself in the face a few times too.
When a dishevelled and tortured-looking Hoffman turned-up on the set to start filming, Olivier took one look at him and said “My dear chap, why don’t you just try acting?”
There are some companies that have fully embraced employee engagement – so much so, that in the case of online retailer Zappos, they have taken to naming their employees Zapponians. So, not only do they sell shoes, but they're also one big happy family that have campouts and barbeques.
I’m not knocking Zappos for attempting to make their customer service more effective or to make work more fun, but I do think that herding all your employees under one collective noun sounds a little cultish*.
Couldn’t we all just try being better managers?
* Not a typo.