Here is one of my favourite stories about employee engagement. I can’t remember which book I read it in so apologies for the lack of reference. Anyway, researchers took two groups of volunteers and placed them in separate rooms to complete a repetitive cognitive task that required concentration (something about pressing a button on a keyboard when they saw a particular set of numbers appear on a screen). In the first room, the volunteers were greeted warmly and thanked for their participation by the researchers, who then explained the tasks and asked the group if they had any questions. On the table in front of the volunteers sat a big plate of warm cookies and the group were told they could help themselves after completing the tasks or choosing to stop. The researchers then left the room. In the other room, the second set of volunteers were given exactly the same task and offered an equally tasty plate of warm cookies to eat at the end. This time, however, the researchers simply read out a list of instructions and left the room.
What happened next amazed the researchers. Not only did the first group do much better at the cognitive task but they also stuck at the job significantly longer than the other group before tucking into the cookies. The people who were welcomed, well briefed and invited to ask questions were more ‘engaged’ with the task – so much so that their productivity was superior and so was their willingness to see the task to the end. They could resist the lure of the cookies far longer than the second group, who gave up pretty early.
The only difference between the two groups was in the way they were treated by the researchers. The people in the first group were treated as individuals. They were made to feel welcome and asked for their feedback and questions. They were smiled at and thanked. And this made the difference. Even that minor level of ‘engagement’ led to the team performing better and being more conscientious about the job they were asked to do. The other group, with just a clinical one-way briefing, had no ‘reason why’ when it came to the task and, well, they couldn’t be bothered in the end.
This experiment highlights the very thin line between engagement and disengagement but it also shows the benefits of a smile and a kind word. I often use this story with managers to emphasise that sometimes it’s the little things that matter. It also offers a low cost way of testing engagement – put some warm cookies in the office on a busy day and see how fast they go!