What My Mother Taught Me About Employee Engagement

I remember the first job that really engaged me.

My mother was a bookkeeper, and she often worked from home. She would clear the dining room table, and spread out her things: books, pens and so on. If I came into the dining room, looking listless, she would say, “would you like to help me?” And I did want to help. She would let me type up the envelopes to send out cheques or invoices. And I felt really lucky. I was engaged.

So how did she engage me so well? I think she did a few things that any good manager would do:

  • She demonstrated good work habits
  • She acted as a role model
  • She gave me responsibility
  • She created a positive space for work

Each of these things were lessons. I don’t know if she did these things consciously – I’ll have to ask her. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter – this is how I perceived it (which is why I haven’t asked her before writing this post).

Work Habits

There was a ritual around work. The preparation for it involved the same steps every time. Clear the table of the artefacts of home-life – flowers and napkins, for example – and wipe it down. Replace those with the artefacts of work. Take out the big books of green paper (this was before bookkeeping became computerised) from where they were stored, pull out her favourite pens (I think she had a special type and a special colour for work), and the correction fluid – green to match the books. Turn on the typewriter, and pull out the envelopes and letterhead.

During the day, it was a good place to do work. It was always clean and tidy. It was calm and quiet – maybe the radio was on, the volume low.

Of course, all this was completely consistent with who my mother is, how she views work (her values), and how she does the work itself. In other words, she was a very good role model.

Being a Role Model

Part of being a role model was in showing me how to prepare for work – something I do to this day – even though my work is carried out on a computer or in front of people. I also like to clear my space and get my cup of tea. If I need books or articles for reference, I have those at hand too. If I’m writing, I like to have music on or the radio – I’m not actually listening to them, but I find it hard to work when it’s quiet. My husband is a music producer, and I think I get some of my best writing done when he’s editing drums!

The rituals around work also included setting boundaries – how much time was dedicated to this work in a day or week? What expectations did she have of her family whilst working (that one’s easy – we were meant to leave her be)?

But my mother also taught me about her values by showing me how she worked. Bookkeeping isn’t intriniscally fascinating work. But my mother found joy in it – if she got her books to balance, it gave her a lot of satisfaction, which she would express. She liked her work, I think. She was methodical and focused. When she spoke with her employer she was always polite and professional. And she was kind. When she did go into an office for work, she would always enjoy working with her colleagues. She treated them like people.

I have to admit that when I first started working as an adult, I may not have stuck to all those values. But over time, I think I’m becoming more and more like my mother in those respects. Because she led by example, it meant that I could make my own mistakes – which would usually lead me to see that the way she did things achieved more.

Managed Responsibility

This brings me to my third point.

By including me in her work, she gave me responsibility – but she managed that responsibility. So, while she helped give me a sense of independence, I knew she was there for back-up and support if I felt lost. She could step in if I needed help. 

My tasks were clearly defined, perhaps a bit outside my comfort zone (my handwriting had to be grown-up enough, for example), there was support and I was encouraged by the fact that she trusted me enough to do a good job.

Creating a Positive Space for Work

All of these things – showing me what good work habits looked like, being a role model, and balancing independence with support – contributed to creating a positive space for work. There were lessons to be learned from every part of the process: the habits of work (setting up, setting boundaries), the doing of work (your attitude towards it), and the work itself (finding parts that bring you joy). Yet, it didn’t feel didactic or forced.

My mother taught me that work was its own reward; but I don’t remember her ever saying it.

What About You?

What kinds of things contribute to your being engaged at work?

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2 comments

  1. How enlightening! My natural “role model” never set any boundaries to the amount or range of work she’d take on, which was way more than any human being, let alone a mother, should ever consider. The only regularity in her schedule, and thus in our family schedule, was that she was always busy and preoccupied with work, stretching to fit in family-duties, a burden she, quite frankly, made us feel by complaining about it once in a while. In the end this all led her to collapse, fall into addiction and a behavior best described as self-harming and unresponsive to any of our needs or her own. Making time to simply “be” with us children, or with herself, a gorgeous, incredibly talented woman of unlimited energy and creativity? Never. Wow. This is helping me shed a whole new light on my current issues. Why am I not capable of setting reasonable bite-sized work and private goals for myself, and allocating the proper space and timeframe for them? Why do I feel safest when drifting into a work mode with no beginning nor end time? Holy mother (!) this is proving quite helpful and hopefully it will contribute to my better tackling the problem, which is obviously causing some serious distress. As to resolving it entirely, well, I might need to ask if you’d consider making me your first “personal engagement” coaching guiney pig… Perhaps pretending I’m my own employee would be fitting? Thank you!

    1. I know – it’s funny when it turns out that despite all of our intentions to the contrary, we become our mothers! I guess it would be nice if we could just pick and choose the good elements to copy, while ignoring the bad elements…

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