The Unlikeliest Source of Wisdom on Employee Engagement

By all accounts, the guy had made it. The company he had started from nothing was now raking in millions. His office was lined with awards and grip-and-grin photos. From the obligatory desk pictures, he was outfitted with a beautiful wife and children. I had sat in many offices like it. The assignment was to write something like: How this Company’s CEO Grew from Nothing to Something.

So I asked: Um, what are your keys to success? He said something like this:

“A commitment to employees and client service. Not just any service, but service that goes above and beyond. And we love our employees. We really are a family. My door is always open.”

Studies show nearly 75 percent of the workforce is disengaged or actively disengaged.

Studies show nearly 75 percent of the workforce is disengaged or actively disengaged.

I really don’t remember if this is what he said exactly. It doesn’t matter. It is what everyone says.

Later we went down to his production floor. He walked up beside someone and gave him a pat on the shoulder. ‘Bob’ was on the employee’s name badge. The look on Bob’s face was the look someone may give the IRS when they come to your door.

“Bob,” said the CEO. “How’s it going?”

In the recesses of Bob’s mind, a small man was searching through a complex set of files to find the right answer. “Fine,” he said. Bob was, however, far from fine. If he had ever seen this CEO before, it was because he was about to receive discipline for too many bathroom breaks.

“Open door policy could be true,” I thought. “As long as he’s referring to the exit door.”

The sad thing is the CEO was not lying to me. His answer was based on a common delusion. Most leaders want to believe that they have engaged employees, are approachable and provide great service. That is a nice thought that helps us sleep. But reality is another thing.

Here’s reality: Nearly one-third of all employees are fully disengaged . That means they have a negative commitment to the workplace. They gossip, avoid responsibility and work against the fabric of the organization. So if most everyone believes they have a great culture, yet 75 percent of the workforce is disengaged or actively disengaged, then what is going on?

The process of focusing on and improving culture is a fact-finding and fact-facing process. I wrote about Kolbeco’s journey in Small Business Monthly before I started working here. There are a plethora of resources that make the case for increasing employee engagement and several libraries of knowledge that outline how to change it for the better.

The Doederlein Effect

But, my contribution to the idea of a more engaged workplace comes in an unlikely form – the father of one of my closest friends. Dr. Arthur Doederlein, a professor at Northern Illinois University, was one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever known, and the world lost him about a year ago.

I met him when I was 15 years old, and one of our first discussions revolved around the business of mowing his spacious yard. I recall he was particular about it needing to be push mowed, and he required certain grass patterns. I took it on as a somewhat regular gig.

I don’t remember much about the yard mowing or the work or how much it paid. What I remember well are the conversations that he and I would often have just outside his back door. Standing there and sweating with soda in hand, we would tackle French existentialism, conservative politics, religion and daytime television. He had an opinion on everything and was the most formidable of adversaries when it came to debate.

But something more sublime sunk in on the back porch, and I believe it to be relevant to the discussion of how to actively engage and recognize others. Since this is a blog post, I shall do my best to narrow it down to three.

Diplomacy is not kindness. Most of the other adult figures in my life at the time (besides my parents) tended to focus on building my ego. With the best of intentions, they wanted to encourage me and make me feel good about myself. I realize now that some of that is a polite form of lying. No one benefits from a frothy emotional building up. Instead, a direct approach based on turth and mutual respect yields better results. Some who knew Dr. Doederlein thought he was argumentative. I certainly thought that as an adolescent. But I now understand that his tendency to debate ideas was a form of kindness. What he was really saying was that I was worthy of debate and that he wanted to challenge my ideas, not my humanity. He was saying that I was enough as is.

Seek out hidden values. The second week that I mowed his grass, Dr. Doederlein handed me a used copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea.” I was 16. I had never thought of myself as a person who would understand or want to understand that level of literature. Most of my reading that summer had been Rolling Stone and…pictures in Rolling Stone. What he taught me was to look beyond what was obvious about people. He trusted his intuition enough to see something in me that maybe only a select few had seen. He unlocked a passion I did not know I had. That gives permission for me to do that same for others.

Walk in your own shoes. Dr. Doederlein was not a perfect man. He had many shortcomings. At times, he was indeed argumentative and, to describe him as stubborn, would be like saying Lindsay Lohan has a slight drinking problem. I never heard him apologize for his weaknesses. You could accept him for who he was or get lost. He was unabashedly human, and his example of living bravely inspired me to start doing the same.

This is not sage advice that Dr. Doederlein would give on creating a more connected workplace. But I believe I get along with other earthly travelers in more meaningful ways because I had the fortune to meet this one while he was still here.