The Great Engagement Robbery: How Others Influence Engagement

The Great Engagement Robbery: How Others Influence Engagement

“Don’t grab your shovel right away. Just step back and watch the pace and tempo of how we work around here.”

I hold a strong belief in personal responsibility for employee engagement, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge how relationships can influence and shape how we work.

This is a two-part blog. In this post, I will outline how workplace relationships can foster disengagement. In the second post, I will use another experience from work to outline how a working relationship can trigger and enhance engagement and joy.

We were working on the railroad…

The term railroad has two meanings. As a noun, it refers to a system of tracks for trains that are built and maintained by hundreds of employees. As a verb, it means to rush or coerce someone into doing something. I have the perfect story to illustrate both definitions at the same time.

In 1974, I got a job with the railway on a crew called the “Perishable Gang” in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was still the age of nepotism so I got the job because my father was a railroader. I wanted to make a good impression at work and I wanted to make my father proud of me.

The perishable gang was a group of four to eight employees who were responsible to look after livestock cars, heater and refrigerator cars, and pick up large grain spills in the railway yard when there were no freight trains moving through Thunder Bay.

… and then I was railroaded

I vividly remember my first day at work. I arrived before eight in the morning and as there were no trains coming for three hours we drove out in trucks to clean up a large grain spill in the yard.

With shovel, burlap bags and great enthusiasm I eagerly went about my task. I rapidly filled a burlap sack with grain, slung it over my shoulder and crossed multiple railway tracks like an Olympic hurdler to sling the bag into the back of the pickup truck and return rapidly to fill the next bag.

I thought the rest of the gang was going to be impressed with my show of herculean effort. And sure enough, within twenty minutes, the head of the gang called me over and suggested we take a walk down the track.

He asked me, “How do you think it is going?”

“I am working about as hard as I can,” I replied.

“That could be the problem,” he said.

I looked at him, puzzled. He continued. “I want you to go back to the spill. Don’t grab your shovel right away; just step back and watch the pace and tempo of how we work around here. Once you understand our pace, and only after you understand our pace, do I want you to pick up your shovel and fall in.”

How workplace relationships effect engagement

Had you been watching me work, in less than 90 minutes from starting a new job you would have witnessed a highly engaged new employee transform into a plodding and disengaged worker in record time. Ultimately I did not perish working in the perishable gang as I was let go during the annual seasonal layoff three months later.

Don’t get me wrong; I take full responsibility for my lack of engagement. But even with personal responsibility for our work other people have a huge influence on our engagement. This early formative experience is why I entered the field of engagement thirty-five years later – to atone for my past sins of disengagement.

If a man does not keep pace with his companions,perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.Let him step to the music which he hears,however, measured or far away. - Henry David Thoreau

The purpose of this story is to examine the role of others in your own engagement and the engagement of employees within your organization.

  • Do others enhance or undermine engagement where you work?
  • How are you addressing the role relationships play in influencing engagement?
  • Are you helping employees take personal responsibility for work and educating them on how to do this?

In the next post in this two-part series, I will look at how you can harness the power of relationships for better engagement at work.


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