Squashing Engagement: The High Cost of Seeing Limitations Instead of Possibilities

“The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. In terms of its impact on the industry, the iPhone is less relevant.”

Matthew Lynn, Bloomberg News, 01/14/2007

Few of us have ever missed hitting the mark by as much as Matthew Lynn did in January of 2007 when he wrote the piece entitled ‘Apple iPhone Will Fail in a Late Defensive Move.’ If you have a moment I’ll ask you to take a look at this piece from a number of perspectives.

  • With your 2014 eyes simply enjoy the article for the sense of irony you experience as you read each argument Mr. Lynn outlines.
  • With your 2007 eyes (you must keep them somewhere!) stand alongside Mr. Lynn and imagine the world he was living in at the time he wrote his article. Crazy right, 2007, like it was “back in the day.”

Matthew Lynn was simply a columnist writing for a daily publication that focuses primarily on matters related to business, not technology. As you go through his column you’ll find clear references to the audience he believes he is addressing. Words like these, “…it is too early to start dumping your Nokia shares…” would seem to indicate that he knows the readers of Bloomberg Daily are investment oriented, financially motivated and management savvy. If he had been writing for another type of publication, ‘Wired’ for instance, he may have taken a different approach; actually it doesn’t sound like he is part of the ‘Wired’ readership either so that example may be a bit far fetched. But clearly he was writing for an audience that he thought he understood.

  • Now with an entirely different set of eyes see if you can imagine what the world would be like today if Matthew Lynn had been head of product development at Apple and the idea for the iPhone had been brought to him? Hard huh?
  • Now ask yourself how many improvements, much less paradigm busting ideas, get shot down by managers in your organization each year because when new ideas are  presented they get viewed through eyes that know their audience wants the future to look like the past?

Here’s the rub, Matthew Lynn still writes for Bloomberg Daily, he’s not a bad guy, he just couldn’t see the iPhone for what it was, all he could see was what it wasn’t and he knew nobody wanted that. Oh yes, and one more very important thing, nobody had to listen to what Mr. Lynn had to say, either then or now, Bloomberg News is very clear with their readership about that…

… (Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)


Unlike Mr. Lynn your employees do have to listen to their managers. I am betting in your organization when an employee brings an idea to a manager and he/she doesn’t see the merits they don’t quickly follow up by saying something like, “But hey, I only work here and this is just my opinion, you should feel free to ask my manager what he thinks of your idea.”

Honestly, using Matthew Lynn’s column from 2007 is sort of a cheap trick, there are not that many iPhone ideas floating around any organization. But all good ideas don’t have to be as great as that, maybe it is just as important that all new ideas get a fair hearing by more than one set of eyes and ears. In my experience it is very engaging for employees to know their ideas will be given serious consideration. Grown ups know they will not get everything they want but knowing they were authentically listened to will keep them coming back.

Do your employees feel invited to present new ideas even if they don’t necessarily agree with past practices? How about those reporting to you?


The Last Word on Trust

trustImagine being at work, in any workplace, and not trusting people? I don’t necessarily mean specific people, I mean people in general. Unfortunately, I think many of us are there unconsciously. This reality is covered up with “handy stories” justifying behavior that might otherwise be considered paranoid. I think you know the stories I mean, they usually include some element of “well you can never be too careful,” or “if you want something done right do it yourself.” These and similar “stories” are versions of how to avoid depending on or being vulnerable with others.

“Trust is more an attitude about myself, an estimate of my own capacities, my own ability to handle whatever comes up. If I do not trust someone, … , a more accurate statement might be that I am not happy with the way I act or feel when I am around this person.   It is my sense of being out of control that bothers me…”

                       Peter Block, Author, ‘Community: The Structure of Belonging’

Preparing for this post, it occurred to me that for many thoughtful people there are three truths about trust and no common definition. The three truths are:

  1.  If I trust, I can count on being disappointed.

  2. If I do not trust, my life will likely be safe but it will feel more like surviving than thriving.

  3. If I am up to anything of consequence—anything that will really make any difference—then I will need the involvement of others. Therefore, trusting is a foregone conclusion: I will trust or I will accomplish very little in this lifetime.

With the above three truths in mind, you would do well to establish a tolerance for disappointment. If this sounds paradoxical to you I empathize. It appears that there is always a paradox to be dealt with where trust is involved, especially if you insist on defining trust as having anything to do with someone else’s behavior.

Unfortunately, in my experience most people do create their definition of trust in terms of the behaviors of others. According to them you must “earn their trust” or some other such nonsense!

While it may seem counter intuitive, as in the case of the Peter Block quote above, there is considerable power in defining trust in reference to oneself. This opportunity is too often neglected at great personal loss and is dealt with masterfully in TRUST AGENTS: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust.

Consider this:

A definition of trust that is filled with power is a function of my relationship with myself.

Do I have the confidence in myself to deal with whatever comes my way? Can I interact successfully with various personalities? Can I rely on employees, co-workers or managers who clearly have superior subject knowledge to my own? Can I honor my intentions when interacting with people of differing agendas? And most importantly, can I count on myself to respond and deliver without excuses even when someone has let me down?

This perspective on trust gives reason to think that you can be effective no matter what and no matter who is involved. And make no mistake about it, trust, like we often say about beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…it is a perspective. By adopting this perspective you place the responsibility for trust in your own lap. Your power comes from the fact that there never was anything you could do about anyone else’s behavior except to ask for what you wanted and hold them to account for what they said they would do.

I was blessed to have a manager who operated with me in this fashion early in my career. I made mistakes and each time he dealt with the situation gracefully and responsibly. If he had delegated something to me and it did not get done well he always held himself to account for having allowed me the opportunity to either meet his expectations, or let him down. This is not to say that he did not hold me to account; he did, and from our discussions around my accountabilities I learned from my mistakes. His trusting that he could deal with whatever mistake I might make allowed me the freedom to bring the best I had to offer and rapidly learn what worked and what did not. Of course, like any truly great manager his trust in me cost him in the end; I was promoted and moved on. And of course, he trusted that whoever took my place would eventually be exactly what he needed, until they moved on as well.

Where have you abdicated your responsibility for trust? When will you take it back?

When Employees Think About Engagement…What is Their Focus?


It is frequently my privilege to work with an owner of a smaller sized business, one where the owner is using their own money to make things happen. As someone who did this myself for over twenty years I have a real appreciation for the risk faced by people who undertake business ownership. I am also aware that facing these risks and achieving a certain amount of success can distort a business owner’s sense of what is really going on, especially when it comes to employee engagement.

A short time ago I was addressing a group of owners of smaller and medium sized businesses. The theme of the conversation with my audience that day was the importance of intentionally designing working relationships. Often I have found that employers will settle for relationships with employees grounded in what they need to have done, as though that is all that needs to be accounted for. That may in fact be a true representation of many an employer’s perspective but it certainly doesn’t account for the perspective of the employee.

During my talk one owner in particular was noticeably irritated, a couple of times mumbling something sarcastic to a nearby colleague. Eventually he butted into my conversation with this remark, “I have job openings now and I cannot find good people to fill them much less worry about establishing relationships. What do you have to say about that?” This was one of those comments that was delivered in a tone suggesting a confrontation might be at hand and the room got suddenly still. Not wanting to waste the moment or the anticipation I responded, “Well tell me this…why would any body want to work for you?” It hadn’t seemed possible but the room got even quieter.

After a moment another member of the audience chimed in with a comment directed at me, “It sounds like you are attacking him, he’s creating jobs for people. Shouldn’t we be grateful that someone is creating jobs and help him solve his problem?” So there it was, the time honored practice of coming to the defense of the “job creator.”

Should we be grateful to the job creators? I am not sure gratitude is the proper response. Respect for the “job creator” is probably appropriate, respect for bringing forth talents and abilities that are in limited supply in any population and using them to the economic advantage of themselves as well as others. Certainly not everyone has these talents; fewer still have the willingness to launch into the risk of business ownership and none that I know are doing this from some sense of altruism, they are trying to get something they want and creating jobs is a means to that end.

I find that all employers want their employees to give their best at all times. However, where they get tripped up is in being able to be explicit about needing their employees. As a fallback they adopt the attitude that employees should be grateful for the opportunity they have been provided and therefore engage as a function of this.

What this perspective does not take into account is that many employees, especially the ones you will want to keep are as future oriented as the employer. Any employee who is really valuable is very likely aware that the books are square with the delivery of every paycheck. They don’t get paid for what they will do; they are being paid for what they have done. Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman from The Boston Consulting Group have recently written a book titled, ‘Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated’ and they are very explicit on this point…

 “Engagement, therefore, is prospective, not retrospective. People do not choose to engage as a result of gratitude for how things have gone in the past, but rather as a reflection of what it will bring them.”

This is likely a point of view that highly sought after employees might have. So then, “what’s in it for me now?” is very likely a question on their minds.

Now back to my audience from a few weeks back. Yes Mr. Grumpy was a “job creator” but he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart. There was something he was trying to accomplish, something from which he anticipated a return on his investment greater than what he might get otherwise or from some other source. If, as I suspected, his attitude of begrudgingly offering these good jobs was as apparent to prospective employees as it was to me it was no wonder he was having trouble filling his vacancies. Prospective employees worth having can sniff this type of attitude out quickly and it does not offer them a future worthy of engagement.

The Challenge of Leading the Millennial Generation: Harnessing the Entrepreneurial Spirit

“Rather than answer the knotty questions about whether entrepreneurs are born or made employers need to turn their attention to more practical matter of promoting an environment of innovation.”

Last Friday afternoon I was fortunate enough to make time to attend the Western Big DogsWashington University Business Summit, an annual event hosted by the College of Business and Economics. The topic for the afternoon was entrepreneurism and innovation and focused on a panel that included three local entrepreneurs and one professional manager/former would be entrepreneur. This group was offered the opportunity to respond to a number of questions regarding their passion and vision and of course the question that has yet to be finally answered, are entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

Let’s be clear, entrepreneurism and innovation are hot topics, you might even call them trendy. Although the sure fire path to innovation remains a conundrum one thing we do know is that entrepreneurs, when they are in full flight, create opportunities for others to be employed and job creation in America is on everyone’s agenda if not for themselves certainly for their children.

To my satisfaction the three entrepreneurs on the panel agreed with me, entrepreneurs are very likely born and born in limited numbers. Maybe not born like from the womb but as the sum of their life experiences they arrive at the adult stage of life with a burning desire to make something happen, something big. You might recall the quote from Steve Jobs; “I want to put a ding in the universe!”

This idea of entrepreneurs being born versus developed has of course been debated and will continue to be so because as Americans we love the notion that we can be anything we want to be with hard work and blah, blah, blah. OK, knock yourself out with that if you want.

Meanwhile, I am also pretty sure from personal experience that a desire to own your own business or at least not work for anybody else does not make you an entrepreneur. (That would be me) I am just as certain that there is a difference between having an “entrepreneurial spirit” and being an entrepreneur. The case for this last assertion was made by the fourth member of Friday’s panel an admittedly “reformed entrepreneur” who had thought himself to be one early in life only to find that he didn’t have the constitution to deal with the inevitable failures inherent in the entrepreneurial life cycle.

Rather than answer the knotty questions about entrepreneurs being born or made employers need to turn their attention to more practical matter of promoting an environment of innovation. By that I mean encouraging the expression of an entrepreneurial spirit in their businesses and attracting the very talented millennial generation.

In late 2011… William Deresiewicz wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times titled ‘Generation Sell’. In this piece Deresiewicz takes us through his analysis of the millennial generation that seems to be so troubling to work with or even understand for many managers today. His central thesis is that this is a generation of entrepreneurs.

While I do not to agree with Deresiewicz I do see merit in his observation that the Millennials operate with…

“…a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.”

 …so their entrepreneurial inclinations are driven as much from a self-preservation strategy as the previous generation’s were driven by the desire for security.

While entrepreneurial in nature many of the Millennials are really “tweakers” and most continue to work in our mainstream organizations. They literally walk among us, having learned how to play the game by developing an ability to fit in rather than drop out and assume the risks and responsibilities of business ownership.

Given the continued premium many employers still place on compliance it is likely that we have not tapped the entrepreneurial instincts of this generation and likely as not this is why they will eventually leave us, not necessarily to start their own businesses but in hopes of finding an environment that welcomes their creativity. As managers we might do ourselves an enormous favor by asking not how we can get them to be like us but rather how can we give them reason to stay and invest themselves in our future.

In an article titled ‘The Tweaker’ Malcolm Gladwell identifies the difference inventor and “tweaker.” By definition…

“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.”

Turning our Millennial employees loose to “tweak” may seem like an invitation to chaos. However, it also may just be a formula for the engagement and retention of our best and brightest.





Are Your Managers Taking Knives to a Gun Fight? Sean Connery’s Lessons in Leadership

I wrote the following piece about five years ago. Every so often I publish it again because, Sean Connery1) I continue to see managers constrained in their ability to manage effectively by cost control thinking and practices and 2) I love the picture that goes with it!. I hope you find it relevant………

For most of his 50+ year film making career Sean Connery entertained audiences by repeatedly playing one type of character; dashing, unpredictable, unmanageable to be sure, we are not quite sure he is a hero but we are glad he works for our side; great stuff for the silver screen but not much of a leadership model. Ironically, his greatest professional honor, an Oscar for Best Supporting actor came while playing the consummate team player, Officer Jimmy Malone in the 1987 movie version of The Untouchables.

In this film Connery’s character assumed the role of “leadership coach” for the young, passionate but naïve Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner. In what may be Malone’s most memorable scene he delivers a brief soliloquy on how Ness can best deal his arch enemy Al Capone…

“You wanna know how you do it? Here’s how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”

Officer Jimmy Malone, The Untouchables, 1987

In one instances he delivers his message with the aid of a classic rhetorical question when a gangster draws a knife and attempts to stab Ness and winds up shot dead in the process. “Isn’t that just like a #@&**#? He asks, “Brings a knife to a gun fight!”

Could any message be clearer? If indeed we do need a translation the Urban Dictionary offers this… ‘Bringing a knife to a gun fight- The act of taking an amount of any substance to a gathering which is obviously insufficient.’ Like managing without sufficient empowerment!

Recently I was reminded of this little bit of leadership counsel from Officer Malone in an exchange I was having with officials at my son’s college. A piece of equipment my son borrowed from the school last spring was noted as damaged upon its return. I was made aware of this situation when I went to pay his Fall tuition, a flag in his record indicated that the damage needed to be paid for before he would be allowed to register.

I contacted my son who said he was aware of the damage and noticed it when he originally picked up the piece of equipment. Since it did not affect the functionality of the equipment he didn’t pay any further attention. Unfortunately he should have brought the damage to the attention of the department personnel he was borrowing from, they didn’t see the issue until the equipment was returned; the cost of repair, $120. Based on my son’s explanation I did not see that we should bear the full cost but also recognized that the department had nothing to go on either except one of their employee’s testimony. I proposed to the supervisor who spoke with me that we split the difference equally. It seemed to me that we had on our hands what amounted to a “he said, he said” situation. The supervisor said he was not authorized to make such an arrangement. This is where Officer Jimmy Malone’s words came back to me in a flash of recognition, “Isn’t that just like a #@&**#? He brings a knife to a gun fight!”

Without any forethought I blurted out, “You are kidding right, you cannot make a decision on what amounts to a $60 transaction?” I am afraid my frustration may have unintentionally embarrassed that manager. Two levels of management and two conversations later I was able to conclude the transaction with the department director agreeing to my proposal!

It really doesn’t matter the name of my son’s school, it could be any college anywhere in the country, maybe the world for all I know. It doesn’t even matter that it was a school, it could just as easily have been a manufacturing company’s service department, and the lesson would have been the same.

We ask our managers to lead, to inspire, to direct others in producing results of all kinds and yet we limit their authority in ways that leave them humiliated in front of their charges or the customer. These very same people, who can purchase automobiles worth thousands of dollars, enter into mortgage arrangements for hundreds of thousands of dollars; bring children into the world without asking our permission…need approval for trivial transactions. Why?

Don’t bother to respond. Whatever you are going to say next…that…that right there…is Nonsense!

Engagement and power are inseparable. If our managers are disempowered how can we expect their engagement at anything other than a compliance level? Why would we ever expect them to inspire or be inspired themselves?

  • Where have we unnecessarily constrained our managers and are wondering why they under perform?

Is Employee Engagement a Hoax?


Somebody had to be the first to say it, well maybe not the first to say but say it with at least enough sassy to scrape the skin off and return some sanity to the dialogue around employee engagement.

Sometimes you just need to poke someone in the eye to get them to see clearly and in this case it is an entire industry of coaches, consultants, academics and advisors that needed the poke. Two weeks ago in his article, ‘Engagement Voodoo’ John Sumser, editor-in-chief of the online magazine HRExaminer put truth to the lies around employee engagement in a way that should have been stinging to many employers and practitioners alike.

To be accurate Sumser’s article was not the first, nor will it be the last, in a string of attempts to shake awake employers, HR practitioners, OD professionals and employees who have fallen prey to the siren’s song of the engagement merchants.

In a July 2013 post to Heartofengagement.com titled ‘This is Not the Road to Heart Lake…an Alternative Perspective on Employee Engagement’ I took my own swipe at what had become to me obviously a snipe hunt with projections of significant escalation in investment on the part of employees during the coming years. Yes, that’s right, in spite of virtually no appreciable return on investment for nearly twenty years employers are expected to spend even more in an attempt to tap the elusive discretionary effort that employees hoard so fiercely.

Let’s get straight about something, and in his article Sumser says it well…

“The truth is that most people work to live. They go to work to finance the rest of their lives. They are happy to deliver professional results to the best of their capability if the system will let them. But they will never see the company as the heart of their existence nor will they derive the bulk of their self esteem from their work.”


So just to be clear, these “most people” that Sumser refers to have already given what they are going to give in terms of discretionary effort. They have fulfilled their purpose in being in the workplace.

Further on Sumser says

“They are employees, not owners. And, any program that tries to make them feel ownership without paying them the way that owners are paid is just more snake oil. Owners are owners and employees are not.”


Once again, to be clear, these employees do not see or hear employers saying, “We are prepared to give you more of a say and a bigger piece of the pie, even if it means we will take less ourselves.” They don’t hear that because employers are not saying that, they are investing in recognition programs instead.

If you and I were having this conversation over dinner with some other friends we would easily agree that the notion of something for nothing is absurd. But somehow clever consultants have been able to convince employers that they 1) need more engaged employees and 2) with an investment far less than the benefits that have been heretofore been stripped away 3) employees can be renewed in the commitment to their job and a company that has demonstrated repeatedly that they are expendable.

Over dinner, with friends, we would laugh hysterically about this and marvel that anyone would fall for this notion. Then we’d go back to work and dutifully fill out our engagement surveys. We are all in this together after all.

For the past nearly three decades as organizations have become leaner they have in fact become meaner; but not necessarily meaner in a good way; more competitive, yes, more inviting, not so much. Yes there is Google and Netflix and Zappos that we love to read of but they remain rare, that’s why they get written about.

Engagement remains the choice of the individual, always has, always will. It can be invited, it can be thwarted, but it cannot be induced.



What is the ROI on Employee Engagement?…Consider Flexible Work Schedules


The truth is there is no real return on employee engagement, engagement is the return on doing the right things and higher levels of engagement correspond with higher levels of profitability.

Here’s a test…let’s say you own a business or manage a group of people…some of your employees approach you and ask about the possibility of arranging work schedules that have some flexibility. Do you hear threat or opportunity in the request? If you hear threat you are probably biased towards wanting as much control as possible over your employees. If you hear opportunity you are probably biased towards anything that will make the business more profitable.

Does this sound like a gross over generalization? It probably is but it is with the intention of making a point. As employers our minds are often locked into patterns that suggest control and profitability go hand in hand. Not so.

Last week I was fortunate enough to receive a last minute invitation to attend a luncheon meeting sponsored by the Mount Baker chapter of Society for Human Resource Management. The topic was flexible work schedules, not exactly a brand new idea but the speaker Dianna Gould took an in-depth look at the potential profitability impact of schedules that produced a win/win for both employer and employee. Wait…I thought flex time was an employee benefit?

Are you aware that the replacement cost for replacing an employee that doesn’t work out is on average 1.5 times their annual salary, when you take into consideration the cost of recruiting, training and lost productivity. This fact alone would be enough to have most managers or employers open to considering measures that could encourage good employees to stay if something could be done to accommodate their scheduling needs. That is unless these same managers or employers think of flexible work schedules as a merely a benefit. Benefits of course go on the liability side of the balance sheet, they detract from profitability.

To be fair there is a case to be made for flexible work schedules being a benefit, but it is pretty weak. When you throw in the cost associated with replacing an employee this weakness is exposed. When you throw in the cost associated with replacing a really productive employee it is time to question the motives of that same manager or employer who won’t consider flexible scheduling.

Look, if I am a highly capable person who knows their value in the market place I have no compunction about approaching my employer to request a work schedule that will allow me to respond to some personal need I may have, especially if it will allow me to continue to perform work I enjoy with people I enjoy in an organization I respect. However, as that same highly capable person I know I have options. While it might be temporarily inconvenient to find another employer I will, certainly when I can see there is no business necessity in the work schedule I am being asked to adhere to and I have what I consider to be pressing personal considerations.

As is often the case with my writing it may appear that I am exhibiting favoritism towards employees, sort of an anti-employer stance. No! What I am is anti-stupid and frequently I find that employers or managers are either unwilling to reconsider what they think is the way it must be, or unaware of these beliefs.

So here we go, I am going to send you to a couple of websites that contain way more information that I can possibly squeeze into the space I have available, or that you have time for now anyway.

First… as the manager or employer you need to be able to consider flexible work schedules as a business strategy. Holding it as a benefit significantly undervalues the upside to this approach.

Second…watch this little video, it is about 3 minutes and I know you have that much time http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUz2hH_T1nE,

Third… spend some time after watching the video to consider whether more flexible work schedules might work in your organization as a practical matter. Maybe there are some schedules that need to stay fixed. Remember, I am anti-stupid and that means don’t go jumping just because I suggest you jump.

Fourth…here are a couple of websites where you should spend some time, the When Work Works Toolkit developed by SHRM in conjunction with the Families and Work Institute and also Life Meets Work. LMW is a consulting company but they have lots of free stuff on their site that you can use to create an educational foundation for yourself.

Finally, don’t go crazy and turn your workplace upside down, start slow and most importantly convince yourself of the benefits.


My History of Being “the boss”, What I Regret

The Boss

I write a lot about what it takes to be the type of boss or manager that can engender a working environment that calls forth engagement in employees. Actually I think I was pretty good at bringing highly engaged people into our organization and then letting them make the contribution they wanted to make; but not always.

  • In some cases it was giving them the freedom to make certain types of decisions.

One time we had occasion to need to replace our ailing copy machine. When our office administrator most familiar with our duplication process told me it was time for a replacement I asked her to make a recommendation. I also asked her what might be the cost of the type of machine we needed. She said she thought maybe $5000. I said, “OK, that’s your budget, let me know how it goes.” That was our only conversation about the purchase and when she reported back with her choice she proudly announced we could get what we needed with minimal financing and a service and warranty plan that would provide plenty of backup. I really cannot tell you what brand she bought, it worked, she was thrilled and that was all that mattered to me.

  • In some cases they needed to be listened to.

We seriously considered a merger with another local company. We went through several weeks of due diligence and getting to know the operations of the other company and were close on a deal when two of my office staff asked for a meeting. Shortly after we sat down to talk it became very clear that they had strong opinions about our potential new partner and they were not positive. We had always placed a premium on treating each other with respect and made a point of listening to whoever had something to say. They reported that on the several occasions when the potential partner was in our offices they had felt dismissed and talked down to and on balance felt that the merger would have a significantly negative impact on our environment. When I spoke with my partner after the meeting we agreed that both of us had been harboring an uneasy feeling but neither of us had voiced the fact since there were so many positives we were focused on. We called the merger off and never looked back after this decision and reaffirmed our commitment to an environment where everyone’s voice could be heard.

  • Sometimes it was backing an employee on a tough decision.

At one point I received a call from our largest client, the local telephone company, telling me that they were miffed that we had switched our service to one of their competitors. The news caught me by surprise since I usually allowed the folks running our office to make such decision based on their best judgment. Sure enough, our finance person had received a competitive bid for service from the local competitor. She decided to check it out with our provider and made several calls in an attempt to see whether they would match what she’d been offered by the competitor. When she didn’t hear back after two weeks of un-returned phone calls she decided that maybe our account was too small to warrant immediate attention. Based on the offer the competitor made she felt the savings was significant so she changed the service. Then we did get a phone call but to me as the business owner from a senior manager at the phone company wanting to know how I could justify such a decision when they paid us so much for services. When I looked into it I saw that my finance person had made a decision in our best interest unless you considered the politics. That wasn’t her concern. I took the issue to the senior manager at the phone company and rather than apologize I asked him how he could justify such inconsiderate customer service. It all ended well.

It is so rewarding to recall these instances, which I do only infrequently. But you know which situations I recall more frequently; the times when I let my ego override my values. On balance there are fewer of these times than those similar to the ones I have shared here. But honestly I can say that when I used my position power to force an issue or when I refused to listen to an objection to one of my bright ideas, those are the times that haunt me even now. I’d really like to have an opportunity for a do-over there but those memories go with the privilege or being “the boss.”

  • Treat your employees like precious cargo, hire the best you can and let them be their best.

“Put Me in Coach!”: Creating a Game at Work Invites Engagement


Sometimes when I have used the term “game” in the same sentence with business the response I have gotten from my audience goes something like this, “ You can’t make a game out of business; business is serious.” After we talk about it for a while many in the audience usually recognize that my idea of business being a game does make some sense. Business is a game grown ups play for real money, there’s winning, losing, prizes and surprises just like any good game would have.

So if business is a game, albeit a serious one, why don’t we do more to bring out the game-like qualities in the workplace? After all most of us do enjoy playing games of many types and we can get pretty invested while we are playing.

Keep that question in mind while you ponder the reality that the average North American workplace is currently operating with somewhere around 30% of the workforce reporting being fully engaged; hardly what you’d expect from a great game.

Last week I had an opportunity to visit a medical device manufacturing facility located in my area. A good friend has recently taken on the position of Chief Operating Officer there and he wanted me to see the work he had been doing with the workforce to reduce the errors being made in the production of the custom devices this installation make and sells. He’d sort of been bugging me about it and even though my primary interest lie more with employee engagement I decided that maybe I had something to learn from his quality initiatives.

I have to admit, I had not made a connection between quality initiatives and employee engagement. As it turned out…silly me! When I arrived he took me out on the production floor to watch the process had been using for about four months. I mentioned earlier that this company produces custom products and they are complex and expensive for both manufacturer and end users. Because of the complexity, much of which arises in the customization process, the opportunities for error are many. Errors are costly both in terms of costs and time to delivery and historically errors at this company had taken a toll on their competitiveness in an industry that like many others that has become global.

Out on the production floor I saw charts indicating that significant progress had been made in error reduction even in the short time my friend had been there. The statistics were certainly impressive but my educational experience began with the next step.

A few years back Mike Rother, working out of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor translated the legendary Toyota manufacturing process into language and concepts that can be applied to virtually any industry and any type of workforce. Rother has a book of course but he also operates the Toyota Kata Website, which I would encourage you to visit. My friend has become well acquainted with the methods developed by Rother and his primary attraction to the approach is the impact it has on employee engagement.

After our review of the charts we next visited the actual Kata process. As you probably have guessed the term Kata is Japanese and means “form.” In practice then it is the study of the movements, or form of producing anything.  From what I witnessed I’d say the real meaning is Eureka!

What I got to see was production workers from a variety of backgrounds, Vietnamese, South American, Russian as well as American working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to bring about improvements in the various stages of the production process. To say the least it was exciting. These were folks with a variety of educational, language and cultural differences who were coming together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to work collaboratively on what they had in common, the day to day working experience.

Within moments of the Kata process getting underway it was obvious, these people were playing a game! They were involved, they were passionate; they exhibited initiative and creativity, all why listening intently to what their colleagues had to share. What I found so attractive about the process was that it gave these production workers the chance to solve their own problems. This aspect of the work has historically been reserved for engineers and supervisors and the workers merely reported the problems and then stood back. Beyond the involvement the people in the Kata process were encouraged to experiment and when there experiments didn’t work out they were applauded for what they had learned. Imagine, employees encouraged to take risks?

Of course after such a short period the process is not without flaws. There is still a lot of learning going on but the level of enthusiasm for playing the game was undeniable. Was there 100% engagement, no, but there was a heck of a lot more than 30%.




What is the Sound of Engagement? A Manager Needs to Know

Engagement-Inside-Job* If you are not a manager just read this with any situation in mind where you are counting on the collaboration of others.

Probably the most common mistake I watch managers make daily in the workplace is addressing their direct reports as though they are both fully engaged and ready to go. Maybe yes, maybe no and not knowing is a risky proposition. Just because you have one of your employees nodding their head doesn’t mean anything except they are nodding their heads!

A worse mistake of course is not being aware that an employee’s state of engagement even matters!

You may have never thought about it but as a manager you need to be aware that engagement has its’ own “Voice”, as does compliance and resistance, which are other frames of mind your employees can be in

  • depending on the day
  • the conversation topic
  • what happened to them last night at home or this morning
  • what they were doing or
  • who they were talking to just before they came to your meeting
  • and, and, and …or, or, or…life will not leave us alone.

So now, what do I mean when I refer to “frames of mind?”  Frame, like window frame, the place we are looking at the world from at any moment is more kaleidoscopic than fixed. (“What you said to me yesterday was fine and welcome, say the same thing today after I have just had a tough conversation with a peer in another department and I may ‘jump down your throat.”) … much to your surprise and dismay! We are always giving “voice” to our frame of mind if others would just listen and watch.

Engaged, associated by choice, is a condition of being, and there are both ultimate and interim conditions of being engaged to consider.

  • Ultimate engagement arises from the choice to honor your commitments.
  • Interim engagement is subject to the slings and arrows of everyday/every moment life and is constantly in flux.

Ultimately, I am completely committed to the success of my marriage; in the interim, my wife has asked me to check under the house for a water leak! Given my aversion to both maintenance and the underside of the house about the best I can muster up for this one is an “Okey Doke honey!” and grudgingly crawl under after just about anything else I can think of that just “has to be done” before checking for the leak. As it turns out my wife knows that my ultimate commitment to the marriage always wins out over my weasel mind and she will get her report on the alleged leak sooner rather than later, so she doesn’t try to handle my dawdling.

What is this “Voice” thing?

Voice of Engagement- “I am on it honey thanks for letting me know there may be a problem”, followed by action.

Voice of Compliance- As above, “Okey Doke honey”, followed by going to the refrigerator, making a sandwich, watching some of the ballgame and then crawling under the house.

Voice of Resistance- “It rained last week and I don’t want to get muddy so I’ll get to it next week, its probably nothing.”, followed by no action until asked again.

I hope that you can translate these personal examples into your own when addressing your team or another co-worker while setting the stage to get something done.

If you don’t check in with people you run the risk of talking to employees and assuming that head nods, Okey Dokes and even “You got it boss” means that something is going to happen and you can count on it. Maybe you’ve just been talking to yourself!

So, do you know your reports as well as my wife knows me?

  • How many times have you been burned by talking with your folks as though they are right there with you?
  • How many times have you known they were not right there with you and you went right on talking as though you could talk them into it?
  • How many times have you taken their silence to mean assent and walked away hoping you were going to get what you asked for?

Is this too basic? I wish it were and I don’t by any means want to insult anyone, unless it will help get this clear, when you are not winning as a manager start with where people are at. Address them where they are, not where you wish they were. Be curious, find out why they may not be engaged, ask what you can offer to address misunderstandings or fears directly. In the interim getting in communication is the result to be produced; ultimately it will get you where you want to go.