Thinking the Unthinkable logo Thinking the Unthinkable logo

UNTHINK: Staff Engagement

by Carley Bowman

Our UNTHINK series is a collection of short stories illustrating what you can do to help your organisation improve its performance, manage disruption and thrive on change. They are real stories taken from TtU’s interviews with leading business people from around the world.

They provide a model and inspiration for others. If we pool our experience and learn from each other, we can achieve our vision of creating a global leadership community that thrives on change.

Here’s how one company reversed its fortunes by engaging staff at all levels of the business:

Cartoon of stick people and with speech and thought bubbles
How can leaders ensure all staff are heard?

The Challenge

A north London delicatessen faced big competition from the established supermarkets.

The new owner wanted to do more than compete. He had a bigger purpose.

I wasn’t just here to … encourage supermarkets to behave better. There was a broader agenda which is about putting the heart back into business.

With a price war raging, costs going up and sales going down, what could he do to turn the business around?

He used a process to engage his staff in the challenge ahead. The process was epitomised by the use of a “Talking Stick”. It encouraged everyone to have their say on the way the company would be run.

The Inspiration

The owner had spent 18 years working in retail strategy and had learnt important lessons. He’d seen how companies focussed on the short-term.

I … saw … warning signs that something was going wrong … the pursuit of ever more growing profits with the excuse that they had to maximise shareholder value, … has done exactly the opposite and destroyed [their companies].

And he’d seen how they had ignored their staff and failed to engage them in the success of the company.

So, he set out to do put those lessons into action.

A lot of the approaches we have used … are used in the personal development world, which is all about trying to improve your self-awareness. I am taking inspiration from seeing what other people are doing and some of it comes from my kind of inner desire to run a fair and more heartful company.

The Process

He went through a planned process to engage his 45 full-time and 45 part-time staff. He wanted to find ways to improve their performance and make the delicatessen a great place to work. He viewed both objectives as mutually supportive. These are the steps the company went through.

The Heart Programme

The first part was … to create a safer environment for people … to share all of what they can bring.

So what did they do?

They gathered at a separate location away from the shop.

We started with a meditation, we then got people sharing uninterrupted what they were joyful about in life, what was paining them in life. And really sharing some kind of deep feelings and experiences, secrets even, which allows people to connect much more with each other. So creating a greater team spirit, but also a safe environment.

The Talking Stick

The company has a stick known as the “talking stick”. Anyone who picks the stick up has the right to speak their mind and to be heard without interruption.

“People feel that they could say things and by using a talking stick – which is normally sitting on the shelf … everybody gets to speak because one of the challenges in so many business meetings is this. People just talk over each other all the time. And particularly junior people and less experienced people rarely get an opportunity unless they’re very self-confident to get to input anything.”

This stick has become an emblem of the way the company is run, with the full involvement of its staff.

Suggestions from the Team

The team was asked to make suggestions of how they would like to change the way the business was run or areas that needed attention.

It was difficult to allow people to attend lots of meetings, so they also had a suggestions box where people could have their say.

The result?

What was said … was somewhat depressing … There were many things that had been raised in the past …, some of which I will put my hand on my heart, we didn’t really address before. Other ones that we’d thought we’d addressed, but clearly we hadn’t.

… what I learned most was we needed to do something different because if we didn’t do something different then in two … or three years’ time … we’d still have the same sort of issues arising.

The Council

They formed a council with staff representing all departments and all levels in the company. The council considered each issue raised and went through the list, fixing those that had easy solutions and discarding some already resolved.

Sixteen issues were left on the list. Council members voted on which they felt were most important, giving them six overall priorities. Shop floor resources and empowerment come out top.

Address the Issues

We discussed the shop floor resources in our first council meeting because it was the joint highest one. And it was an easier one to fix than empowerment, so we decided to tackle that one first.

We had … taken hours out particularly at the check-outs, well, out of everywhere. But the check-outs were hurting and the team felt they were under pressure, the customers were not getting proper service.

So we came back to the council with the proposal that we would put an extra 50 hours into the check-outs. And part of the reason we had taken hours out was there wasn’t the money to pay for them. So what I said I would do was I would take a cut in my pay for four months to do this.

It was felt by the team that [it] would make an enormous difference, providing that the hours were put in the right place. And the check-out team themselves were … the ones who were going to decide where the hours were going to be.

The council worked their way through the issues over the next 4-6 months.

Communicate The Outcomes

A key to the success of this approach was to get messages to the whole team. Everyone needed to understand what was happening and why. Balancing word of mouth and written communication with formal structured meetings was the challenge.

What’s really important is getting everybody’s buy-in. I’m prepared to take a pay cut because I know, that (a) we’ll improve our service and (b) if the whole team are behind this that people will … be more engaged and just the mere greater engagement will actually help us increase sales.

Means of communication:

  • Written notes of council meetings posted on the notice board
  • Council members sharing decisions and action plans with colleagues


The process is kept under permanent review and changes are made to improve it.

Feedback from the team suggested that the balance of members in the council was wrong, so two new people were appointed. They also decided over time to introduce a democratic process to elect council members to a two-year term.

Repeat the Process

When enough new people have joined, they hold new Heart Programmes. The talking stick remains the key method of capturing the thoughts and suggestions from staff, ensuring they are fully engaged in the process of change.

Thinking Stick: The Process info graphic
The practical steps of the Thinking Stick process

The principles that underpin the process

TtU logo

The TtU Take

This approach echoes many of the themes that emerge from TtU’s on-going research.

Lower level staff often know best. Leaders admit to us that their companies are too top-down in their command and control systems.

They recognise they would do better to empower and engage their younger and lower level staff who often have a better understanding of the day-to-day running of the business than the C-Suite executives.

“Taking inspiration from seeing what other people are doing” is exactly what we envisage in our vision of creating a global community that thrives on change.

Our LilyPad network will share the information TtU has gathered, like this article, and it will help people share their learning and learn from each other.

The process outlined here matches the TtU progressions.

You need first to understand the challenge, then define your own objectives, plan how you will address your challenge, and establish an on-going process that allows you to continue to adapt to and deal with future challenges.

Many leaders have told us of the pressures of short term priorities and the quarterly results. It stops them from confronting longer-term, sometimes existential challenges.

Leave a comment