Spiderwebs and Skunkworks: Fostering Employee Engagement

Some of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done were the ones for which I received no money.

Take, for example, the summer of 1984. With a brand-spanking new driver’s license in hand and a red 1976 Mercury Bobcat to go with it (hey, it had an 8-track; don’t laugh), I was finally free to do something more than walking distance from my home with those three impossibly long, empty months. I had gotten involved in High School theatre the year before, and our teeny tiny town had an improbably robust community theater that seated hundreds and put on major productions throughout the year. So I volunteered to work there, hoping to soak up all the glitz and glamour of show biz; it didn’t much matter that the theater building itself was adjacent to more than thirty miles of uninterrupted corn and soybean fields.

Before we get too far down Midwestern Memory Lane, I want to warn you there’s a point to all this Proust-just-bit-into-a-Madeleine memoir-ization.

employee engagement great leadershipA friend recently drew my attention to an article on the dollars-and-cents impact of employee engagement. Which is all well and good. But to see the real impact of employee engagement—the kind that only great leadership can lead to—I want you to do a couple of quick things.

Bear with me.

1. Go here. Ask for directions from “The Shire” to “Mordor.” Click the “Walking” icon.

P.S. It helps to be a Lord of the Rings fan.

2. Go here. Type “Do a barrel roll.”

3. Go to the same site you went to in #2. Type in your favorite actor’s name; follow that with the words “bacon number.” Check results.

Google is rightly famous for some of the most elaborate, elegant, amusing and delightful easter eggs ever inserted into otherwise sterile strings of code. From a playable synthesizer to celebrate Robert Moog’s birthday to April Fool pranks that included extraterrestrial “visits” to web pages in Google Analytics, these aren’t planned and managed in the way most formal projects are. Easter eggs are hatched (pardon the pun) by like-minded groups of employees operating informal, unacknowledged workgroups—otherwise known as “skunkworks.”

Skunkworks by definition are the results of autonomous, self-directed, highly engaged employees who have the ability to communicate well, problem-solve and resolve conflict with little or no management interference. As such, they’re a sure sign of a healthy emotional culture.

But not all organizations are creating code elaborate enough to hide whole video games or ninjas. That’s why it’s important to look for other signs of employee engagement.

Which brings us back to the great big community theater in the barn.

I was as engaged in my non-paid work at that community theater as I have probably ever been in any form of work. Among the various and sundry duties to be performed before our epic town production of “West Side Story” could go up was set painting. Huge three-sided rotating “flats” (technically called periactoi—and now you’ve learned a new word today) had to be painted by hand to create store interiors, outdoor settings, and buildings. Standing on 10-foot ladders, three people were assigned to paint this scenery, and since I had a few years of art lessons under my belt, I found myself tasked with transforming one side of each flat. When they were rotated and displayed next to each other, they would look like a brick tenement.

The work was easy, and rehearsals going on a few feet away from us set painters were a source of constant entertainment (intended and unintended). One afternoon a week or two into the job, I found myself at a “window” on the tenement. It was black, of course, because the interior would appear black from the outside during daylight. But that poor little window felt lonely to me.

Which is why I took an extra half-hour to gave that window what I thought it needed: a spider web. And in the web, a spider. And in her web, a fly.

I doubt the actors ever knew about the spider web. I know for a fact you couldn’t see it from the first row of seats. But I knew it was there, and I took pride in that spider web. I like to think the spider enjoyed the shows too, until she got painted over to make sets for the next show, in the fall, when I was back at school.

The lesson here is twofold: One, make room for Easter eggs and spider webs. And two—when you see them, let the team know you appreciate them. Exceptional leaders don’t clamp down on creativity; they trust talented employees to color outside the lines (or inside the window) as they strive for new and innovative ways to make things more interesting, more satisfying, more effective and more useful.

So whether your team offers you a new graph to illustrate old data in a new way, or a PowerPoint instead of a Word document, or a “crazy” idea about new markets that may be good sales targets, you’ll know you’re building a healthy corporate culture that nurtures satisfaction and pride—a culture full of active, engaged employees.

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