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Employee Engagement and Bread Crusts

Written on:August 24, 2012
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A crust of bread, for most of us, is such an insignificant thing. We cut a loaf of bread and chop off the crust. The crust gets tossed. Or, when making little hors d’oeuvres, the crust is trimmed and perfect little sandwiches remain. My mother used to cut the crusts from the ends of the loaf, butter them up and share them with us as a special treat; she considered the crust a delicacy. What does a crust of bread have to do with employee engagement?

An old time fable goes something like this:

A husband and wife were deeply in love and were married for fifty years. Everything they did, they did together. They travelled together. Shopped together. Went to the movies together. Visited museums together. And, being part of a close family, held many family reunions.

Each morning the husband woke early and made breakfast. He fried two easy over eggs, brewed a hot cup of coffee and sliced up fresh bread to put on the side of the plate. The husband considered the crust a delicacy, and out of his love for his wife, he always placed the crust on his wife’s plate.

A family reunion was held to celebrate their fifty year anniversary. During a break in the festivities, the ladies of the family were relaxing with the wife. One of them asked the wife how fifty years of marriage had treated her.

She said, “Marriage has been fantastic. We love each other. We do everything together. But, after all this time you would think he would treat me better.” What do you mean, she was asked.

The wife replied, “Well, every morning he prepares breakfast, which is very nice, but he cuts off the crust of bread and instead of throwing it out he gives it to me. What does he think I am, a garbage disposal?”

At the same time, the husband was finishing a drink with some of the men of the family. They asked him how fifty years of marriage had treated him.

He said, “Marriage has been fantastic. We love each other. We do everything together. But, after all this time you would think she would treat me better.” What do you mean, he was asked.

The husband replied, “Well, every morning I prepare breakfast, which I enjoy doing, and I even go out of my way, every day, to give her the bread crusts, you know, the best part of the loaf. And not once, in fifty years, have I received a thank you.”

The husband for fifty years has been sharing his favorite part of the loaf; he was making a personal sacrifice for their relationship. The wife for fifty years was accepting the leftovers of the loaf and sacrificing by not complaining.

Though they loved each other, they were not satisfied with a key aspect of their relationship. And, more to the point, they did not openly communicate about the part of the relationship that did not satisfy them.

How often do we do this at work? How often do we make assumptions about what we do, assuming that what we are doing is what someone else either really wants or appreciates?

As we address employee engagement, there are many leaders looking for what more or what else they can “do” to get their employees more satisfied or more engaged. Trust me, no matter how much more the manager gives or does for the employee, overall employee engagement will not move. Engagement increases when employees are engaged and take action or take initiative on behalf of themselves.

I, along with many of you, have had the dubious pleasure of working in unionized work places. Every two or three years we negotiate a contract. During the course of the year, we negotiate to settle grievances or other disputes. Without trivializing the negotiation process, the union asks the employer to do something for them or to give thwm something. The union asks and wants the employer to give. What is the result of this? Are the unionized employees more satisfied and more engaged because the employer gave them one or more things? Generally, not. They want more.

In fact, the unionized employee tends to be less satisfied and less engaged because the relationship is built around asking and the desire to receive something from someone else. A desire to get. It is not built around what the employee can do for him or her self. We do see highly engaged employee groups in entrepreneurial work places. These employees expect to take the initiative and to take action for themselves, for others and for the company.

High engagement does not spontaneously arise when you are waiting for someone to do something for you. Engagement does blossom when you engage in taking ownership of your own destiny. How does this affect us as leaders? Look for opportunities to partner with your employees, so that they learn to embrace ownership of their engagement.

If you are “doing for” your employees and not “partnering with” your employees you may be missing out. Stop just giving and start partnering. With partnering, you provide lots of opportunities. You coach your employees to see and take advantage of these opportunities.

Back to the crust of bread. The husband and wife care deeply about each other, so they merely “gave” to the other, without taking the time to understand what the other either really needed or appreciated.  When we give, there is a tendency to give in accordance with our personal or professional standards. As you look for opportunities to partner with your team, take time to find out what they value. What they need. What they appreciate. What they want.

Once you know that, or at least get closer to knowing, you can then work with your team together on things that are mutually appreciated, mutually desired, mutually needed.

Of course, this does not mean there will never be a need for compromise or adjustment in the future. There will be a need for continuing to test out and validate the mutual need of your relationship. This can only be done by not making assumptions. By asking. By sharing honestly.

What would have happened if the wife had said, “Dear, thank you for another delicious breakfast. Yesterday you gave me the crust of the loaf. Is there a special reason why I get the crust again today?”

What questions do you ask as you partner with your team?

What questions does your team ask as they partner with you?

If these types of questions are not routinely asked, then what can you do to get there?

Are you just “giving” or are you partnering?

Drive engagement by partnering with your team on solutions. Share ownership and accountability.

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