A Personal Employee Engagement Watershed: Stop Putting Lipstick on Camels

Whoever said “it’s nothing personal” was not talking about work.

Iguazu Falls in Argentina (February 2017) by David Zinger

This post is personal. I apologize in advance for not offering you levers, drivers, or 11 action items to boost engagement. I took the pictures in the post, I am not inserting stock photography of people jumping with joy at work – perhaps stock photography should be only used for livestock not to represent real people at work.

I hope sharing a personal experience encourages you to reflect upon your own personal experiences with work.

At the end of this post, I will outline new directions and implications of what I learned for my future contributions to work, management, leadership, and employee engagement .

I experienced an employee engagement watershed day on November 3, 2016. A watershed is an event or period marking a turning point in a course of action or state of affairs.

On November 3rd, I was conducting a 2-day workshop on Employee Engagement in Troubling Times in Dubai with 3 people from Egypt. On the second day their phones starting vibrating and ringing around morning coffee break bringing them distressing economic news. During our second day together, the Egyptian currency was devalued 40%. Interest rates were raised 3% and subsidies were removed from basic goods. They were still doing the same work but within the course of just a few hours it was worth less, by about 50%.

Later that day, after I had returned to my hotel room in Dubai , my wife called me from Winnipeg, Canada, half way around the world from Dubai. Susan told me that she had been walked out of her leadership position without cause at a health care facility.  I am not saying this because Susan is my wife, I am saying this because it is true: Susan is one of the most engaged people I know. She has extremely high levels of work engagement yet her years of work and contribution, irrespective of her engagement, was taken from her in a few minutes in a vacuous meeting room.

That day felt devastating and demoralizing. External events can literally make work worth less or make you feel worthless in relationship to your work. I felt a sense of violation against the hard work people were doing. Perhaps because I was in Dubai it triggered the belief that my work in employee engagement was equivalent to putting lipstick on camels. 

Regardless of how much lipstick you apply, it is still a camel!

It was over 5 months ago that I felt washed away and carried downstream away from my work on employee engagement over the past 10 years.

During this interval, I had the good fortune in February to visit the powerful and mighty  Iguazu Falls in Argentina. Iguazu Falls personifies a real watershed. I saw and felt the power of rushing water. My wife, son, and I took a boat that went through some of the falls. We were drenched and the pressure of the water left us feeling that we had experience a liquid sandblast.  Yet, the next day we walked to an isolated falls where you could relax under the water and be rejuvenated and refreshed through the power of falling water.

I intend to transform the November 3rd watershed day away from being sandblasted by organizations and towards being refreshed by the stream of possibilities that lie, often dormant, in our work and engagement.

Not only do I feel differently, I want it to change how I work, and what I work on.

It is time for me to put the lipstick tube down and face up to all that is involved in engagement at work. I intend to be stronger and more personal in my writing, expressions, and work on engagement. You can see some of the early developments of this in my recent posts on LinkedIn and my regular contributions on the Halogen TalentSpace blog:

Watch for a stronger more personal focus on my keynotes, coaching, consulting, workshops, and online courses during the next eight months in 2017.

In addition, a major project during 2017 is researching and interviewing people for my fifth book on engagement and work. The working title is Wisdom at Work. I am interviewing 100 people who have retired to draw out their stories, perspectives, and wisdom on how to work. I chose retired people as they offer a full perspective on work and career and they are removed from day-to-day work and organizational politics. I believe they will feel freer to open up about work and engagement. I have only interviewed 12 of my 100 people but I have learned so much already, including:

  • Often the most personal is the most universal.
  • It is harder to define work than you might think.
  • Recognition from peers and clients trumps recognition from organizations and bosses.
  • You don’t have to like all of your work but if you don’t like 80% of your work you need to make changes.
  • You can create your own psychological safety at work…

Don’t forget, work is personal.

David Zinger is a global employee engagement expert and educator who won’t be buying any lipstick for camels in the near future.

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