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JEFFREY TOBIN: Climbing Mount Knucklehead

by on August 31, 2014 1:49 AM

I am in a state of amazement. In doing research about employee engagement, I am now more convinced than ever that engagement has stagnated among employ­ees in this country because of one thing: knuckleheadedness.

Most of what we learn from research, blogs, anecdotal evidence, bar charts, graphs, polls and plain old opinion only causes us to scrape the same knee over and over again. In this vast world of resources about employee engagement, we are knuckleheads. I mean just what I say: We have heads that are full of knuckle.

I speak from a position of pure reason. With layer upon layer of “new” understanding, research and training, employee engagement is getting worse, not better. What’s knuckleheaded about this is that we continue along the same ineffective courses of action in spite of the fact that there is no improvement.

It’s time for some thinking that goes against convention. It’s time to invert the hierarchical pyramid. It’s time to burn the books. It’s time to take a Neti Pot to the cranium.

And to start over.

For the next few moments, I’m asking you to ignore your current understanding of how to achieve employee engagement. We need to find another answer. Yes, there is an answer, and I’m betting it’s something you already know instinctively.

Today’s practice of achieving engagement typically begins with a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, of sorts. At its base is financial compensation; at its peak we find terms like meaning, passion, fulfillment and self-actualization.

Reaching this peak is the supposed ultimate outcome, producing a truly engaged individual. And this would be true, except for one thing: It isn’t true. It doesn’t work.

The pinnacle — the treasure of engagement — should not be an ultimate discovery: It must be the base camp from which our journey begins.

Current wisdom tells us we will uncover the Holy Grail of engagement at journey’s end. I’m saying employee engagement is the journey’s beginning.

Engagement starts with relationship, not compensation. Engagement starts with interaction, not job descriptions. It starts with a stated commitment to the growth of the employee, not a list of responsibilities.

It starts with building trust, empowerment, respect. C’mon. You know this instinctively. You don’t need instruction, you simply need freedom from convention.


Here are some ways you can get started engaging your employees right now. Pose some of these questions to your employees:

“If you were the boss, how would you do this?”

“How can I be helpful?”

“You’ll be fine. Is there anything you need?”

“Waddaya say we go get lunch?”

“Could I bounce a couple of ideas off of you?”

Don’t wait to reach the top of the employee engagement mountain. Start right now by showing respect, trust and regard for each employee’s growth.

Let the knuckleheads put on their gear and climb into the thin air of treasure hunting. By the time they’ve gotten to the top, you’ll have already moved the mountain.

Jeffrey Tobin, an international speaker and business coach. He is also the owner of Henry Hall Office Products in Indiana and hosts the website His professional advocacy columns appear Sundays in the Business section of The Indiana Gazette and the Community News page on The Indiana Gazette Online.
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