Your time is precious so I give you the answer from the very beginning: it's 42. We will have to hitchhike our way through the galaxy and go to ancient Greece to see why. Let's begin.
42 is known as the meaning of life, the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything". It is famously calculated by a supercomputer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5M years in Douglas Adam's book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The "42" of employee engagement has its roots in Ancient Greece*. Our story begins 490 years before B.C. The Greeks had just defeated an invading army of Persians at the city of Marathon. The legend has it that a messenger, Pheidippides, was sent from the battle field of Marathon to Athens to announce the important victory. After making his announcement in Athens, the exhausted messenger collapsed and died. The approximate distance between Athens and Marathon is... you guessed it... not much far from 42 km. To commemorate the dramatic run of Pheidippides, the marathon is part of the Olympic Games since 1896. The marathon is exactly ... 42 km (plus 195 meters, but that’s another story)
Pheidippides ran because he was ordered to run with little preparation and after an exhausting battle. Unlike him, millions or people today run marathons every day and enjoy an exhilarating feeling a finishing a purposeful and worthy race, over and over again. Who makes them run? No-one. It is their own free will and motivation. No wonder that the metaphor "running a business is a marathon, not a sprint" is so often used in the corporate world. Every manager is happy to have skilled, focused and motivated business marathon runners in their teams.
But how to encourage our teams to run 42 km. business marathons and keep them happy about it? Do these three things:
I made that word up to represent making sure you have provided your marathons running employees proper equipment, training and skills to do the job you need them to do. Unlike the poor Greek messenger Pheidippides, we want the marathon to be en empowering and rewarding experience to them, not a final destination.
Show the bigger picture, the purpose.
Companies with bigger vision and purpose attract, retain and engage more talents. This is also the reason why so often marathon runs are connected with noble charity causes - the higher purpose to help other fellow human beings is a better motivator that the idea of just going through the distance.
The first question that an employer should be able to answer to their employee is what's in it for them? This means clearly defining the rewards. Money is just part of the picture.
One study** asked what would be the most important thing a manager or a company could do that would help the employee be successful and 37 percent — the majority — cited recognition as the most important method of support. Other solutions lag far behind — 12 percent want more autonomy, 12 percent more inspiration, 7 percent more pay, 6 percent more training and 4 percent a promotion. This means over a third of the workforce need first and foremost to be recognised.
There you have it: 42 - the answer to the meaning of life and to employee engagement. And ultimately - the answer to the life and death of your business, because only “Happy employees ensure happy customers. And happy customers ensure happy shareholders - in that order” (Simon Sinek).
Is it going to be easy? No. A marathon never is. Douglas Adams warned about it in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:
“All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it’s pretty damn complicated in the first place.”.
But please, don’t panic! Just give it a (marathon) run.
Victory Corners 2021, by Viktoriya V. Blazheva.
* The History Channel: the story of the marathon.
** Data from from Smarp, an employee communications & advocacy platform.