What a Near-Death Experience Teaches About Employee Engagement

Contrary to the old-school mindset that compassion and empathy are better left outside of the office building, if this past year has taught us anything, it’s that compassion belongs in the workplace. It fosters employee retention and loyalty, which in turn creates a path for business prosperity and growth as employees feel engaged, empowered, and understood.

However, creating a compassionate workplace requires a top-down shift, in which leadership creates an environment of compassion that sets the stage for the entire organization. This can begin with a simple shift in communication that leads to a domino effect in actions and company pillars.

A Near-Death Experience

Consider the story of Kenny, a recent new hire to Paul and Dylan’s organization. Kenny knows the difference between employee connection and employee engagement:

“Nine months after I started working at my company, I walked into my boss Paul’s office. He took one look at me and said, ‘Kenny, we’ve got to get you to the hospital. You’ve got a huge lump on your neck that wasn’t there during our meeting 15 minutes ago.’”

“Let’s go,” Paul said and then led Kenny to his car and sped to the nearest hospital.

The doctors would later say that Paul’s decision to drive to the hospital rather than wait for an ambulance likely saved Kenny’s life. In the short drive to the hospital, the golf-ball-sized lump had grown to the size of a grapefruit.

Through four layers of management, Dylan heard the news about Kenny — that Kenny is in the hospital with an unknown condition, his fiancée is pregnant, and they’re not sure if he’ll live to see his wedding day in a couple weeks.

Kenny tells it this way: “Dylan called me after I was admitted to the hospital and the situation was pretty serious. Dylan asked, “Kenny, may I have your permission to call the president of the hospital and have him look in on you?”

That afternoon, the chief clinical officer of the hospital came to Kenny’s room and recommended a doctor at another hospital nearby who was one of the foremost experts on Kenny’s condition. Kenny agreed to the transfer. As soon as the chief clinical officer left his room, Kenny broke down crying. For the first time, he had hope. The events of that day extended his good fortune in that, nearly 10 years later, that doctor who Kenny was transferred to still treats him today.

Years later, Kenny asked Dylan, “How did you know the president of the hospital?”

Dylan laughed and said, “I didn’t. I cold-called him. I left the president a voicemail saying that I had an employee in his hospital and I was concerned that he might need specialized care and might not know the best doctors because he had recently come here for a new job from a rural town with no connections here.”

Kenny was released from the hospital — and days later he attended his wedding. Kenny also told me, “We named our daughter Faith because every critical step that led me to the right doctor gave us faith in the future.”

“I don’t tell a lot of people here my story,” Kenny explains, “because I hadn’t been with the company long enough to get disability pay. The company generously made an exception to some of their established policies to allow me to get paid time off during my recovery. I chose to work 60- to 80-hour weeks once I recovered to show my appreciation. When I hear about good employees complaining that the company doesn’t care, I seek them out and privately tell them my story. I’m still here — literally — because of the generosity and support from my company and the people who work here.”

Kenny adds, “Both of the people who saved my life are no longer with the company, but I am.”

That’s the power of employee connection.

The New Rules of Employee Engagement

For the most part, highly engaged people working for companies with great cultures don’t leave to work for companies with bad cultures. So, if you’re already among the organizations leading with employee engagement, how do you compete for talent?

With employee connection.

Kenny, Dylan, and Paul aren’t the only ones who get it. So does Bob Chapman. Bob is the CEO of $3 billion family-owned Barry-Wehmiller. He gets it. In a TEDx talk, Bob summarized the guiding principles of leadership that his company has been putting into practice since 1988: “We’ve been paying people for their hands for years, and they would have given us their heads — and their hearts — for free if we had just known how to ask them and said, ‘Thank you for sharing.’”

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The compassion revolution is working for Microsoft too. The tech giant’s CEO Satya Nadella is widely credited with transforming Microsoft’s corporate culture from cutthroat to compassionate. In the six years since taking over in 2014, Microsoft’s share price has increased by nearly 500%, creating over $1 trillion in shareholder value. In other words, employee connection doesn’t just work for employees—it works for shareholders too.

A compassionate approach to employee engagement starts by asking employees what support they need from you or others in your organization. When you begin asking such questions, you will likely find that people may not give you suggestions at first. They may not share with you the support they need because they don’t want to “owe you” something or they may be embarrassed to ask for what they most need. Additionally, some people are fiercely independent and prefer not to ask for help. And, in extremely stressful situations, some individuals may simply be too overwhelmed to know what support they need.

That’s why it’s often helpful to offer two or three ideas as a multiple-choice question of sorts, like: “How can I support you? For example, we could shift tasks to another team member, adjust deadlines, or take any other suggestions you may have.”

A Compassion Symbiosis

What if the person who needs support is you? Creating a culture of compassionate communication also includes the additional benefit of creating a pathway for “reverse communication.” For example, you can reverse the initial conversation and ask for the support you need, like this: “I have a couple ideas for how you could support me. Would you mind if I share them?”

Notably, the reverse question here is not a quid pro quo. If you’re offering support only to get support, then you’re not executing from the right mindset.

Reverse questions are for everyone, including people who don’t hold leadership titles. This strategy is not only used by leaders to build better bosses, and become one; you can also use them to build your current boss into a better one. 

Even more important — overachievers, take note here — as a leader in a team, when you grant permission to others to use the reverse strategy with you, then you’ll ultimately create a compassion symbiosis.

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Certainly, Kenny benefited from employee connection. And it seems that the company got a great benefit too by having another devoted employee.

But do you know who may benefit most from employee connection? Dylan said it best: “I don’t know Kenny very well, but I was the only person from the company invited to his wedding. That was almost 10 years ago. I don’t remember the awards we won that year or my bonus, but I vividly remember Kenny’s wedding. I remember his mother hugging me. I remember the tears on her cheek as it pressed against mine. And I remember mine on hers.”

So, who benefits most from employee connection? Leaders. Compassionate leaders. 

Adapted from 22 Talk SHIFTs: Tools to Transform Leadership Tools to Transform Leadership in Business, in Partnership, and in Life by Krister Ungerbock (Lioncrest Publishing). © 2020

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