What a Rubik’s Cube Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement
I love analogies. They’re a powerful tool when it comes to teaching and learning. Case in point: my daughter and I were watching The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith. It’s the true story of a San Francisco salesman’s one-year struggle of being homeless with his five-year-old son. The movie takes place in 1981 at the height of the Rubik’s Cube craze. There’s a scene where Smith solves the cube to impress a stockbroker who he hopes will give him a job. As we watched this scene play out, I started to think about the cube as a great analogy for employee engagement. Here’s why.
A Rubik’s Cube has six sides, six different colors, and 54 squares (nine on each side). The objective is to rotate the sides of the cube to get all the same colored squares on the same side. It’s common for people when they first try to solve it to focus only on matching one side at the expense of the others. We know this doesn’t work. In the movie, Smith explains that you first need to understand how the cube works if you want to match all the colors to their right side (yes, there is only one right side for each color).
Employee Engagement works in very much the same way. You’ll never solve it or build it if you don’t have a fundamental understanding—both qualitatively and quantitatively—of what drives, motivates, inspires and engages your employees. Essentially, you need to understand what makes your workplace, well … work. And many companies, I’m afraid, don’t know. What’s more, companies don’t appear to be making the right investments to find out. We know this because, according to Gallup Daily tracking, only 32% of employees in the U.S. are engaged. Worldwide, that number drops to just 13%. Think about these stats as if they were your customer loyalty numbers. Your leadership team would be in crisis mode!
Employees First, Customers Second (No, Really)
I came across an interview with Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group. In it, he’s asked why customers come second (that’s not a typo) at Virgin. His answer: “By putting the employee first, the customer effectively comes first by default, and in the end, the shareholder comes first by default as well.”
Some might describe this as a bold statement, to which my question back to them would be “why?” You can’t argue his logic. Employees are the face to your customers. They’re your brand. Treat them poorly and they, in turn, will treat your customers poorly. When this happens, your business suffers.
I haven’t met one leader in my career who doesn’t acknowledge that the culture and energy of a workplace impact everything from innovation, employee retention, and customer loyalty, to company growth both in the short- and long-term. So why then are engagement numbers so low across the globe? Why is the hashtag #CX (customer experience) trending on social but #EX (employee experience) is still largely unknown? Perhaps worse, a recent PwC survey of workers and executives found that leaders are completely out of touch with the realities of employee frustrations (development opportunities, resources needed to perform jobs, work/life balance). Um … Houston, we have a problem.
I think about successful employee engagement as having five core pillars and, just like solving our Rubik’s Cube, they work in unison. If you’re not addressing the whole, you will not solve your engagement problem. Leaders from the top down must commit to making each pillar part of the employee experience, and that commitment must be evident in every action, interaction, transaction and reaction across the organization. This is how companies like Virgin thrive—by putting their people first.
In a people first company, employees experience the following:
- Purpose: My company and the work I do have meaning and impact.
- Connection: My leaders listen, understand, and care about my needs and challenges.
- Trust: I feel trusted, empowered, and supported to make the right decisions.
- Learning: My company is invested in my personal and professional development.
- Gratitude: I feel recognized and appreciated for my contributions.
By evolving to this people-first model, leaders will create a culture that combines customer experience and employee engagement in a way that strengthens the brand, attracts top talent, and inspires innovation, continuous learning, collaboration, creativity and inclusion across the company. To Branson’s point, everyone wins. It’s why he’s enjoyed so many successes during his career (and there are many other companies getting it right too).
It’s time for every business leader to look inward, dig deep and listen attentively to their teams. Remember, you can’t fix an issue if you aren’t aware of it. Your people know what they need to be successful. Pave a way for them to win, invest in their growth and development, give them the tools and resources they need to thrive, and when they make you look good, recognize them for it. This is how you future-proof your organization. And in an age when companies are being brought down by new trends, disruptive tech, and antiquated strategic visions, you can’t afford to not begin investing in your employees today.
Ernő Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s Cube, said the problems of puzzles are very near the problems of life. He’s right because every problem (and puzzle) is solvable with commitment, self-reflection, an open mind, and a willingness to learn, adapt, and change course when necessary. Ultimately, this is what all great leaders do well, and the outcome for their efforts is a strong, engaged, people-first company.