Engaging People – something for everyone

30 09 2007

Engagement is about getting individuals involved. No one size fits all. Here’s a story about just that.

One of my first jobs in development required me to work in a production area of a large food factory. I had the role of training and development officer for a plant that worked on a 24hr shift rota. Now this was not a place where there were many  college degrees or even where many people had completed school. The work was often repetitive and very boring, monitoring machines or cleaning and collecting waste from the plant.

You can tell how long ago this was, as I was given my first pc , an IBM ( of course) with 4mb hard disk space and a floppy to run programmes from!! I learnt a lot about the basics of computing on that machine and learned to type amongst other things. PC’s were at a premium and time on one precious. This is where on of my most lasting memories and important  lessons on engagement comes from. Dominic, lets not give his full name to protect or at least not embarrass the innocent, was a lad who left school early under a cloud. Not the brightest button on the shirt, he made life hard for himself by answering any taunts with his fists or his temper. He found himself working in this plant, easy money if you could stand the boredom. However, the company was trying to engage people who had these repetitive roles by enriching their work experience by giving them paid responsibility for other roles in the plant; safety , quality checking, hygiene regimes and also admin support to the office. Given training otherwise unskilled operators would be paid to spend some of their time doing additional duties like organizing the deep clean regime for the weekend. So how does this affect Dominic? Well his team leader had tried all sorts to get Dom on board , and more importantly attend regularly. Nothing worked so far – but as a last chance he was offered the role as the team admin support – working on spread sheets, and data inputting on the team pc in the office.  No one was expecting him to pass the training or take any real interest.

Surprise  – Dom came to me one day in my office and asked very meekly and apologetically if he could use my pc when I was away running courses. ” Of course, no problem- but why don’t you just use the one in the office?”  He confided that he was slow at learning and didn’t want to make mistakes and have others spot them, in my office he could work at his own speed and learn at his pace.

 The outcome that surprised me, was Dom, as everyone called him became a model worker, attendance 100% , working on projects in his lunch hour, excellent presentation of data,  going out of his way to learn new programmes, helping his team leaders on fault finding and teaching others how to use the programmes. In short, he had found something he was good at and people respected him for.

 Now here’s the lesson for me, Dom was a basket case of an employee, warning letters about his attendance and conduct , lack of trust and low expectations from his peers and team leader. He found a niche that was interesting to him, that he could learn by himself , that was new and exciting to him and that made the routine mundane majority of his day endurable. The same guy went onto become an excellent team leader – a model for self improvement. Engagement can do lots of things, but its about letting people find what they can contribute and getting their commitment to do it well. Dominic taught me a lot about people we write off for no good reason.


Taking the biscuit

1 08 2007

We recently received an email from a cousin, with a biscuit recipe, not something she would usually send us. However there was a story that stuck a chord with me  about why this recipe was attached.  A woman tourist was spending a long weekend in New York shopping with her friends. They went to a renown coffee shop and had a drink and some cookies, which were delightfully short, light and tasty. She asked the waitress / Brtista if she could have the recipe, and was told she could not have it but she could buy it. ” how much ?” she asked a little shocked ” two fifty” came the reply. ” ok add it the the bill,” and she thought nothing about it. However on return to Europe, she was shocked to find that the  cheaply printed recepie has been charged by the coffee shop at $ 250 not the $2.50 she had thought! She called them thinking it was a mistake and would easily be rectified – to hear  “no way that’s the price, if you don’t like it sue us !”

So what has this go to do with engaging people !!!!! Well how do you think you got to hear this story ? The lady in question said, maybe I can’t sue you but I can get value for money – she emailed everyone in her email directory, telling the story and asking them to pass it one to anyone in their directory – to reduce the cost of the recipe per head ! Now I don’t normally get excited about biscuits, but was interested why my cousin took the time and trouble to pass this one? Its something about the injustice,  something about empathy, something about the nature of the  story, something about supporting a great cause, something about having an involvement to do something to get even, something about the way the story invited us into her situation.

It stikes me that this was a very expensive act for the coffee shop, one time gain $250 dollars, potential bad press – calculate it – average personal directory ( say 150 – 200 people) average take up of offer to pass on ( say 10%) total dissemination of story in one to two weeks if the snowballing  effect continues, > 20 million people in a very short space of time. Now I didn’t give you the  business name, but I know it ! Statistics  on consumer behaviours suggest for every bad service we get we tell on average 10 people, for every good act of service we tell 3 – now that’s worth thinking about.

A good story can really engage others to act. Stories always get told about you  – inside and outside the organization. You cannot avoid them but you can influence them. Being aware of the effect of stories on engagement is a starting point for becoming more influential as a leader. In the book we give some examples of stories that have shaped legacies and set up mindsets for change. If you have examples of stories told in organizations, let us know, share them on this blog by adding a comment.