The Two-Way Street

Years ago as I was building a new team, I would walk out of my office a few times a week and ask if anyone wanted to go to lunch. Some had previous lunch plans; some had already eaten; and a few would say “Sure”. And there was always one who would ask this: “Where are you going to eat?”

My intention was to be spontaneous and inclusive with my invitation. The only requirement I had for lunch was a mutual desire to spend time together. Many of the most creative solutions my team developed happened while breaking bread and relaxing together. I never took a “No” answer to lunch personally, and no employee was ever excluded from the invitation. But I have to say that a response like “Where are you going to eat?” completely missed the point.

Some employee will cry favoritism if they are not included in social time with their boss. And if social outings are exclusive and lock out certain team members, there might be something to that complaint. However, building an engaged team is a two-way street. It requires that both parties–the boss and the employees–want to develop a mutual and productive working relationship.

After one employee, I’ll call Jane, continued to ask “Where are you going to eat?” I asked my managers if anyone had commented on my lunch invitations.

“Yes,” one manager answered immediately. “I’m tired of that crappy salad place you like to eat at.”

“I’m not talking about WHERE we go to eat,” I clarified. “I’m asking if anyone feels excluded?”

“Oh, that. No,” she answered. “Why? Has someone complained?”

“No,” I explained. “I’m just curious about why Jane never joins us.”

Another manager shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe she hates salad.”

I shook my head. “Lunch isn’t about the food. Unless I’m asking people to join me to eat out of a dumpster, it says to me that Jane doesn’t understand that engagement is a two-way street. The invitation to lunch is about spending time together.”

Over  the next several months, the entire management team tried new approaches to engaging Jane. Work from home. Special assignments that she liked. Exciting project teams. And in the end, nothing worked. The problem wasn’t that Jane hadn’t been invited to join the team with an engaged heart and mind. The problem was with Jane. She remained a marginal employees until she decided to leave the organization.

Managers have the responsibility to lead as many employees as possible to become fully engaged. They have to get creative and remain encouraged even when nothing seems to work. Through this process, managers might find the magic carrot. And if not, no manager needs to feel like a failure if an employee decides that engagement is a one-way street instead of a two-way one.

Employees have the responsibility to become personally engaged at work. If lunch doesn’t do it for you, what does? What carrot will motivate you to invest in productive work relationships? Can you be counted on to volunteer discretionary effort to go above and beyond if you view the extent of your commitment to come into work, take what you can, do what your instructed, and then leave?

Hint: Maybe some employees are favorites for a good reason. If you were invited to the party and chose to stay home, you have no one to blame but yourself.

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