How to Engage Your Workforce

Peter Hunter

When people are engaged in what they do it makes a huge difference to their performance.

The way that we feel about what we do defines the way we approach our work. That makes the difference between just turning up for our paycheck or looking forward to coming to work and doing something that we are proud of.

It is very easy to see how Lewis Hamilton, the British Formula One racecar driver, can be proud of what he does, but for the rest of us it does not seem possible that we could look forward to turning up to work on the checkout, or driving a bus, and get the same feeling of pride and achievement.

However, it is possible. It all depends on the environment in which we work.

Some are lucky and work in an environment in which they are supported and valued for what they do. These are the lucky few. Many people work their whole lives without ever experiencing this sort of environment; they can become bitter about their work experience and develop very low expectations.

What is so awful is that the managers who spend their working lives creating this directive and ultimately destructive working environment, could, with less effort than they currently spend, create the same positive, recognition-driven environment that would allow their workforce to engage and thus become proud of what they do.

It is not difficult to do but it requires a shift in the managers’ understanding of what the task of a manager is, from the traditional "Do as I say" approach to asking his or her employees what they need to succeed.

Some years ago while working in the jungle in Venezuela on a drilling project my job was to save the drilling rig, whose contract was under threat for failure to perform.

I knew exactly what to do. The key was changing the understanding of the rig manager to allow him to appreciate how valuable his workforce actually was.

When I first arrived on the rig I asked the manager, Willie Schmidt, to promise that when his crews came up with an idea to make savings or improve the operation he would try his best to make it happen.

Raoul, one of the assistant drillers gave me one of the first ideas for improvement.

I had been waiting at the gate for the crew’s bus to arrive, an 18-seaterminivan that brought a minimum of 18 people every crew change, and frequently more.

The trip took three hours and I could only imagine how that must have been cooped up pressed against each other in the cramped tropical heat of the un-air-conditioned van.

When they arrived on site I watched them emerging from the bus as they spent several minutes bending and stretching to restore their circulation after the journey.

On this day they piled out as usual and Raoul, after finishing his stretches, came over to talk to me.

He asked if he had heard right that I wanted to know any ideas that would make the operation better.

I said, "Yes, tell me your idea, and I will see what can be done."

He seemed a little embarrassed at first but once he started it poured out.

His concern was about the bus; he launched into a litany of its problems: It was overcrowded, cramped, didn’t always pick people up, people had to walk for an hour to the pickup points, and the journey was too long.

There was a whole litany of issues that he just wanted to tell someone, to get off his chest. But I realized that he was just setting the scene.

Finally he came out with his real issue.

All that Raoul really wanted was cushions for the hard wooden seats in the back of the minibus.

The front seats, occupied by the driver and the driller were upholstered and they were fine, but the rest of the crew had to sit for three hours each way, to and from the rig, on the lumpy jungle roads, sitting on slatted wooden benches.

Now I understood the reason for the elaborate stretching exercises that went on whenever the bus arrived.

I wrote down the idea and promised to see what could be done.

Now I took the idea to the rig manager, who if he made it happen could start to change the way that the crews felt about what they did, or he could reject the idea. Then he would have exactly the same crews, and the same performance, that was already threatening to close him down.

After reminding Willie of his promise, I asked him to consider Raoul’s idea.

"Could we put some cushions on the bus?"

He did not explode but he came close to it.

"Cushions on the bus! Cushions on the bus! Cushions! Where do you think you are? This is an oil rig! We are in the middle of the jungle! Do they think this is a holiday camp? What will they want next?"

I weathered the storm, and after he ran out of steam I asked him what sort of ideas he had expected to get from the crews.

Willie said that he was expecting ideas to save money running the rig, ideas to speed up the operation, ideas to drill better wells, "Not cushions!"

Then I asked him, "Suppose that Raoul had an idea tomorrow that cut your costs by $10,000 a week, is that the sort of idea you want?"

He didn’t even have to think, "Yes, of course it is, I’m not running a charity."

I continued, "Do you think that Raoul would give you that $10,000 idea tomorrow if today, when he asked for cushions, he did not get them?"

It was a light bulb moment; Willie opened his mouth as if to speak, then stopped and looked at me through narrowed eyes.

I could see him replaying our conversation in his mind and could see a new understanding playing across his face.

He started to smile.

"What color cushions do you think I should get?"