Employee Engagement. How far is too far?

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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.


Views: 474

Comment by Matt Charney on May 15, 2014 at 8:53am

Mitch: You were already one of my favorites until you dropped the Olivier on method acting anecdote. Stanislavski would be really interested in social personas, but without commenting on Zappos too much (who you're wrong about, by the way - they really do put their $ where their mouth is, as much as I'd love to say otherwise), thanks for sharing this, my dear boy.



Comment by Mitch Sullivan on May 15, 2014 at 9:12am

Thank you, Matt.

I'm not anti what Zappos are doing - on the contrary, from what I've read, they sound like a really interesting company.

Just think the "zapponians" thing is a step too far.  Maybe it's an American thing?

Comment by Tim Spagnola on May 15, 2014 at 8:34pm

I appreciate the post Mitch. I always enjoy your perspective and comments. What exactly would this training look like?

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.

I get the point, but not sure employers know where to begin in finding the proper resources to accomplish what you suggest. 

PS: Lost two placements today that I was optimistic on. Happy hour was my friend. Cheers.

Comment by Anna Brekka on May 16, 2014 at 12:04pm

Agree with you to a point Mitch. The manger you report to is often the reason for staying or leaving.                   That being said the company culture that the manager manages in as well as the employee engagement piece (The " we care" factor) usually brings out the best in both the manager and her staff.  We need it all! 


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