What does it take to generate ’employee engagement’? (Part I)


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This post is the first in a series of posts in which I will be exploring/grappling with the what it takes to call forth the best from the people in your organisation. Some refer to this as ’employee engagement’ which in itself suggests/implies that the default state is that of disengagement.

Everyone wants ‘engaged employees’ few create the context for this to show up

If you want your organisation to come up with attractive products and to generate the kind of customer experiences that leave your customers happy, occasionally delighted, then you have to get the people /culture part right. Getting the people part right, arguably, starts with attracting/recruiting the right people into your organisation.

Once you have the right people, the challenge is to call forth the best from your people. It is a challenge that most companies fail. Research and experience suggests that many if not most companies are failing to call forth the best from their employees; most employees simply show up and do the minimum that they need to get through the day, the week, the month and collect the pay check.

Why is ’employee engagement’ lacking?

Let me start answering this question by sharing a zen story.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

I say that if we are to come up with insightful answers to the question of ’employee engagement’ we have to be willing to empty our cups of that which we already know about employees and ’employee engagement’? I say we have to go further and radically examine our conception of the person: the being of a human being.

How best to illustrate what I am pointing at here? Allow me to share a story as told by Max DePree in Leadership is an Art.

The millwright dies

“In the furniture industry of the 1920s the machines of most factories were not run by electric motors, but by pulleys from a central drive shaft. The central drive shaft was run by a steam engine. The steam engine got its stream from a boiler. The boiler, in our case, got its from the sawdust and other waste coming out of the machine room….

The millwright was the person who oversaw that cycle and on whom the entire activity of the operation depended. He was key person.

One day the millwright died.

My father, being a young manager at the time, did not particularly know what he should do when a key person died, but he thought he ought to go and visit the family…….

The widow asked my father if it would be all right if she read aloud some poetry. Naturally, he agreed. She went into another room, came back with a bound book, and for many minutes read selected pieces of beautiful poetry. When she finished, my father commented on how beautiful the poetry was and asked who wrote it. She replied, that her husband, the millwright, was the poet.

It is now nearly sixty years since the millwright died, and my father and many of us at Herman Miller continue to wonder: Was he a poet who did millwright’s work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?”

What can we learn from this story?

Here is what Max De Pree has to say about the story (bolding is my work):

“In addition to all the ratios and goals and parameters and bottom lines, it is fundamental that leaders endorse a concept of persons. This begins with an understanding of the diversity of people’s gifts and talents and skills. Understanding and accepting diversity enables us to see that each of us is needed…”

What do I say? I say that we have to radically rethink and get present to the being of human beings. And it is only when we get to grips with the being of being human beings that we will get an insightful answer to the question of employee motivation, ’empowerment’ and ‘engagement’. Put more simply, and using Max De Pree’s term, we have to take a fresh, penetrating look at our concept of persons.

Is the being of a human being in the same domain as the being of a computer? Put differently, are employees, our fellow human beings, simply tools to be used as we wish? Or is there something more, something unique, that shows up when a human being, an employee, shows up? Is it possible that it is our taken for granted concept of persons does not honour that which is essential to the being of human beings and thus is the source of the lack of ’employee engagement’?

Instead of jumping to the ready made answers and techniques, which clearly do not work, I suggest that you and I sit with these questions and ponder the story of the millwright. And let’s continue this conversation in the next post (in this series). In that post, I intend to take a fresh look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


  1. Maz–this reminds me of Clayton Christensen’s HBR essay “How Will You Measure Your Life?”–and also of something an HR manager told me many years ago when I was just starting out my career: “How can we motivate you, when you’re already at the top level of Maslow’s hierarchy?”


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