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Reimagining Work for a Community in Crisis

By Patrick Lencioni

Anyone who knows me understands that among the books I’ve written, one of my favorites is The Truth About Employee Engagement. My affinity for this book is the simplicity and efficacy of its message: employees only need three things from their managers to love their work.  Really.  And if that doesn’t sound unbelievable enough, those three things are absolutely free.

Before I touch on those three things, let me explain the real reason for this essay.  Last week, I had the amazing experience of participating in an activity related to this book, one that I will never forget.  It was called The Engaged Manager Event, and it was held in an auditorium on the campus of Chico State University, which is located about 200 miles from my home in the foothills of northeastern California.

If you don’t know about Chico, you may have heard about a rural community located twenty miles away called Paradise.  That is the town that, almost a year ago, burned to the ground in what is now called the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.  Eighty-eight people died as a result of that fire, and more than twenty-seven thousand had to leave their community, because their homes were destroyed.  News reports and YouTube videos can’t convey what happens in communities like Paradise.  One must drive through neighborhoods and see nothing but stand-alone brick fireplaces and charred trees to get a real sense of what took place there.

Beyond the overwhelming physical and emotional devastation in Paradise, there was the reality of the larger community of Butte County figuring out how to care for and absorb so many friends and neighbors.  From housing shortages and job displacement, the collective strain on the community can’t be overstated.  As you can imagine, the national media has moved on to other stories, but the struggle and heroism in Paradise, and Chico, and Butte County continue.

The Table Group was able to partner with the Chico Executive Group to host a rally, of sorts, one that brought together more than eleven hundred leaders in the area to learn how to transform the lives of employees through better people management.  Those leaders represented more than one hundred and sixty amazing organizations, from start-ups to nationally known companies, to hospitals and churches.  The experience was unlike anything I have ever been involved in during my twenty-two years in business.

We talked about how leaders in the Chico area could forever change the lives of mothers and fathers and neighbors and friends by being more intentional in the way they go about managing their employees.  We collectively dreamed of a time, only a few years from now, when Butte County would be known as one of the very best places in the country for employees to work, where they would leave for the office or farm or school or brewery in a good mood every morning and come home to family and friends more hopeful and fulfilled than when they left.

Audience members at the event were passionate and engaged, asking practical questions about how to apply the principles within the reality of their day-to-day working environments.  In spite of all they had been through—more than a few of the people in the audience had lost their homes—there was a sense of hope and determination that we couldn’t have imagined.

One particular moment I will never forget.  A guy who works for the largest hospital in the area, Enloe Healthcare, raised his hand and asked this question, in a skeptical but not cynical way: “I’m in charge of facilities and maintenance.  Are you telling me that I’m supposed to go up to my guys who fix ice machines and explain that their jobs make a difference to the lives of the patients?”  After teasing him just a little, I explained that my answer was, “yes.” When I explained that everyone needs to know why their jobs matter, he seemed to accept my reply mostly.  But what happened next is what floored me.

A woman further back in the auditorium raised her hand, and in a slightly timid voice said the following.  “I don’t have a question, but just a comment.”  She seemed to be asking for permission, so I encouraged her to continue.  “Well, I just want to say that I recently had a baby at Enloe, and, well, I really, really appreciated that they always had ice.”

The place went nuts!  Everyone broke out into laughter and applause.  The facilities manager was practically in tears.  And that’s what this is all about.  Giving every employee in a company, or even better, an entire community, a sense of purpose and fulfillment in their work.  Which brings me to those three things that all employees need.

  1. They need to be known by their manager.  Feeling anonymous is miserable for any employee.  When a manager takes the time to get to know his or her employees, to understand what is going on in their lives, personally and professionally, they give them a sense that they matter.  Yes, this is obvious, but so many managers, even the best-intentioned ones, don’t do this and their employees suffer as a result.
  2. They need to know that their job matters, to someone in some way.  When employees feel that their jobs are irrelevant, they can’t help but feel miserable.  One of the most important roles of a manager is to help employees understand why their jobs make a difference in the lives of someone (customers, other employees, their manager, etc.), so that they can understand why their work matters.
  3. They need to know whether they are doing their job well.  Employees who have no observable way to assess their own success must rely on the subjective opinion of their manager, which makes them dependent on that manager’s mood or whim for their sense of accomplishment.  Managers need to help employees identify reliable ways to assess their own contributions, especially as it relates to how their job makes a difference in the lives of others.

I hope these three simple concepts help you, and many people in and around Paradise, to make the lives of your employees more fulfilled and engaged, for their own good, and the good of everyone else in their communities.