Don’t throw your life away!

During the preparation of a workshop on „Employee Engagement“ that I would be moderating I remembered a conversation I had witnessed some weeks ago.

It was a Thursday during the summer of 2013 and I was on a business trip to London. During the lunch hour I was enjoying a sandwich – like many others – when two British ladies sat down right next to me. They were elegantly dressed, probably in their early thirties and apparently on their lunch break from work. The ladies had decided to sit down right next to me – so close – that I could not avoid eavesdropping on their conversation.

For the first half of their chat they talked lively and passionately and with a high degree of detail about the last weekend. Each one had gone out with her friends, clubbing and enjoying life until the early hours of Sunday morning.

During the second half of the conversation they exchanged ideas about what they could do during the next weekend. They planned to visit friends at the seaside, wine and dine and have fun.

At the end of this 45 minute long conversation they got up and probably returned to work.

After they had left I reflected on the conversation I had just witnessed. Obviously, I could relate to the level of fun and happiness that these two ladies were experiencing while they were reliving their memories of the past weekend and while they were planning the next weekend ahead.

But neither of them mentioned anything that had happened during the current week – after all it was already Thursday. Could it be that nothing of relevance had happened? Or was the working day so insignificant to them that it was not worth a mention?

While I was finishing my lunch I began to wonder weather these two thirty-something were living a “weekend-life”. Maybe they saw their working week as a mere obstacle – a necessary evil to pay for the activities of the weekend. Surely, work time is not necessarily playtime but nevertheless, wasn’t life was too precious to limit it to Saturday and Sunday?

What if there were more people out there who would go into hibernation mode as soon as the workweek started? And what about all those companies that were looking to find ways to engage their staff. All those large corporate programs that employers had launched with the aim to signal their employer attractiveness and to drive innovation and growth. Even if some employers were merely pretending that they were really interested in making a difference they were still investing a lot of energy, money and time in to these engagement processes.

Were any of these programs yielding any benefits? In the case of these two lunch-goers, obviously their employers had failed in providing any kind of meaningful environment to them  – otherwise some reference to the workplace would have been made. I actually could not think of anybody who was less engaged.

I thought back about the various engagement programs I had seen, experienced or heard about. They all had a number of things in common. Driven by the HR department, loosely anchored in the Management Board and typically with a 2-year cycle. This meant that every other year the organization would spend insane amounts of hours planning and executing a process, running surveys and statistics only to publish the results and then forget about them until the next round.

Suddenly it became clear to me that Employee Engagement – when dealt with as a process – could not work. After all, engaging human beings was not a process. It was the result of the many small things that individuals (colleagues, line managers and direct reports) can do to each other or with each other. No corporate process would ever be granular enough to manage the many different worries, needs or desires that the individuals might have.

As a result, Employee Engagement must be considered as everybody’s foremost responsibility – leader or not. More so, it requires that we all become aware of the fundamental interconnectedness that links everybody and everything and that our responsibility is not limited to maximizing our own situation but extends to the ecosystem that surrounds us.

If we all thought about how we could support those around us enjoy every day of the week – none of us would have to throw their lives away.

Written by Carsten Sudhoff

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