What I Learned About Engagement From A Typewriter: A Case Study

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Engagement is not a new concept; great leaders have been using it for years. But it is a concept whose time is now. Organizations need strong employee engagement. Picture an organization with its employees united in finding and implementing solutions to issues and opportunities. Engagement has not only the potential to create high quality decisions combined but also to build significant commitment and ownership of the work force to those decisions. It is the way to build teamwork and camaraderie inside an organization. It is a way to harness and focus knowledge and experience while helping people learn and grow along the way. If true engagement is practiced, it can turn mediocre leaders and organizations into good ones. The potential is great but unfortunately the essence of engagement is not understood or is it not being practiced. What is engagement? A simple situation early in my career taught me a surprising and valuable lesson about  employee involvement.

I was the director of a division and for the first time (this definitely dates me) the division was able to purchase an IBM self-correcting typewriter. Up to that time, our four admins (secretaries at that time) used carbon paper to make copies. Every admin was elated over the fact that this marvelous new technology would be purchased. I am not very smart but even I could see trouble looming on the horizon. Every time an administrative assistant would give me something they had typed or when I ran into them throughout the day, I would hear the same message, “Doug, this would look a lot better (no smudges or whiteout) if I had a self-correcting typewriter!” It was very clear that no matter what decision I made I was not going to please everyone. Of course one of these administrative assistants was my secretary, the senior admin in the division, and everyone expected me to assign the typewriter to her (including her).

One eventful day, the typewriter was delivered to our offices. It sat in the middle of the floor in all its glory. On the side of the box in large letters was written SELF-CORRECTING TYPEWRITER. When I entered the office, I immediately saw all the administrative assistants gathered around the box admiring it and fantasizing what life would be like if only they could use that typewriter. Almost in unison the group turned and looked at me. “Who is going to get the typewriter?” It was a question I had thought about for days!


“I don’t know,” I said, “because I am not going to make that decision. You are!” “Here is what I want you to do. As a group meet and determine who will get the typewriter. Take your time and make the best decision possible. The criteria I want you to consider in making your recommendation are these:

1. Consider the work each person does and its impact on our customers. Use this typewriter to enhance our external image.
2. Do not consider seniority as a make or break factor in this decision.
3. If the person who gets the new typewriter has a better typewriter than one of the people who did not get it, make sure the better typewriter is assigned within the division. Surplus the oldest or worst performing typewriter.
4. Make your recommendation within one week”.

The administrative assistants were a little stunned that I was not going to make the decision but they accepted my challenge. In three days, the admins appeared in my office door and asked if I had time to discuss their decision. After they were seated, I asked them, “What did you decide? Who gets the typewriter?” They looked at each other, smiled and almost in unison they replied, “No one!” They must have seen the dumbfounded look on my face because they quickly explained. “When we considered the criteria you gave us, we agreed we all do work that is important to our external customers. Therefore we decided to put the new typewriter in a place we all could use it for our most important work.” I asked them how we were going to do that if we had to surplus a typewriter. “Oh, you were wrong about that criterion”, was the reply. We checked with procurement and we all can keep our typewriters.”

I think about that situation often because there was no way on God’s green earth I would ever have made the decision the admins made. I would have made the hard leadership choice and given the typewriter to one of the admins with a through explanation of the rationale and wisdom of my choice. While my decision would have been accepted, it would have resulted in no increased motivation or commitment. It would not have saved the division money. (All the admins typed expensive gold leaf certificates for program participants. If an error was made in the person’s name, the certificate had to be destroyed). Thus the admins’ decision saved significant dollars as well as time. (P.S. It also allowed my assistant to type her important correspondence).

What did I learn from my experience with a typewriter?


1. Requires the “intertwining” of a person’s mind (superior solutions) and heart (commitment and ownership) with issues that matter to the company and the employee. (Forget all this happiness nonsense and work on true engagement if you want results).
2. Is a partnership

a. The leader provides direction by defining success criteria. This provides a safe zone within which staff can operate with confidence and freedom.
b. Staff creates the innovative solutions to meet those criteria.

3. Allows leaders to lead without having to make all the decisions themselves. Soliciting meaningful involvement of staff toward a defined direction is one of the most important contributions a leader can make.

I have used this process over and over as a manager and as a consultant and I am almost always delighted and impressed in the way engaged teams of employees rise to the occasion to develop superior solutions when placed in the proper situation.

And that is why I watch with dismay as the valuable concept of employee engagement is misdefined and misapplied and its potential is squandered. The reasons why this happens are for another time. What say you?

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