Engagement – The Icelandic Way

Posted by on Sep 30, 2018 in culture, engagement, language, leadership, teams | No Comments


Why little kids run, how to make workplace culture every employees’ responsibility and creating engagement the Icelandic way.

The comedian Eddie Izzard says that kids run everywhere for the reason that “there could be ice cream over there” – getting to the heart of what’s really important to a 4 year old.

It’s so true, isn’t it?

Kids’ natural exuberance for life is obvious and it’s easy to see how engaged they are with what’s happening around them.

However, as we become adults that exuberance can dull. We’ve got less time to play, more stuff to do and culturally, it can often be seen as uncool to be openly exuberant about things.

But exuberance and engagement are important: They keep us connected, they create a vibrant energy and they’re the social glue of an organization that makes people want to stick around.

The question is how can we keep that exuberance alive? Especially in the workplace.

Oatmilk mocha-chocca coffees, an Indian head massage at your desk and learning origami at the company’s “academy” are all up there as features that add shine and gloss to the modern workplace.

But what about a culture that engages its people?

Culture is that elusive thing that HR talks about and it’s a tricky thing to explain, and is often experienced as more of a feeling, an attitude and a vibe.

Whilst a company may have a cleverly crafted and curated set of values that describe their culture, everyone in an organization needs to walk the talk for these values to have real impact: not just HR, but everybody from the intern to the C suite, from the novice who’s just joined to the person who’s worked there for decades, from the new clients to clients who are delighted to call themselves fans.

You can tell a lot about a company’s culture by the following:

  •      Attitude

How do people treat each other? Is it with kindness and respect? And what does that kind of behavior actually look like? Can you put your finger on it?

  •     Communication

What kind of language do people use when they talk to one another? Is it direct and curt? Is it thoughtful and considerate?

Is there an atmosphere of collaboration and openness? Or is it a heads-down-hide-and-get-on-with-it atmosphere?

  •    Clock watching

Are people engrossed and surprised when they say “My goodness, where did the time go?” Or are they checking the clock every 5 minutes wishing the time really did go quickly and that it was 5 pm pretty damn soon?

  •     Ego

Be honest, you knew I was going to mention this, didn’t you?

Are the best solutions welcomed and celebrated no matter who they are from, or are there a number of elites who need to be given the power and the credit to come up with the goods?

In the brilliant words of the British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, if you’ve got someone who needs you to know that they’re wearing “the captain’s hat” then the issue of ego is clobbering away with abandon at any engagement within a team.

  •     Humour

And last but not least, one thing that I think is really important: laughter.

Do people laugh?

For me, the laughter factor is a biggie.

Having a giggle at work is the adult equivalent of the kid running because there may be an ice cream somewhere. It should be a no brainer.

Everyone’s role should have opportunities to laugh and share a joke.

To put it in perspective how important this is, the average American spends 90,000 hours in their lifetime at work.

Let that sink in for a moment.

That’s a LOT of time.

And a third of UK managers say they are losing their sense of humour because of work.

The message is clear that having a sense of fun at work is vital for a person’s, team’s and organization’s life time of well-being.

Engagement – the Icelandic way

As a consultant and coach I have the opportunity to work with different companies and corporate cultures in Iceland.

One feature that I’ve seen many different organisations use really brings people together.

It’s called the Secret Friend Week.

It’s like Secret Santa: Everyone is secretly given the name of another member of staff. But rather than buy a Christmas present to be gifted at the Christmas night out, your task is to look after your secret friend for a week.

By look after I mean be nice, be thoughtful, do kind things that surprise them and make them smile.

And, here’s the rub: do it for 5 days AND do it in a way that the person doesn’t know who the secret friend is.

Some of these gestures are free and some cost money.

The important thing is that a reasonable ceiling is put on the amount of money that is to be spent; meaning that fresh out of college, Jake, an assistant in Accounts, is not going to be made to feel awkward when his secret friend is Debbie, the Chief Technical Officer, who makes much more money than Jake does.

People are encouraged to get creative and thoughtful with Secret Friend Week.

This can mean having a quiet chat with the colleagues of your secret friend to find out more about them and what they like.

It can mean enlisting someone from their department to magically appear with a fruit smoothie (that you either made or bought) for your secret friend just after they’ve had that long meeting that leaves them tired.

I’ve seen these thoughtful gestures and gifts being given:

  • decorating their work station
  • writing a few words on a card telling them why you value them as a colleague
  • a snack/candy appearing mid-afternoon
  • a plant for their desk
  •  if they’re a knitter, a colourful ball of wool
  • a plate of sushi and a non alcoholic beer at lunchtime (my husband was gifted this and loved it)
  • a magazine on their favourite holiday destination
  • a voucher for coffee and cake at a café
  • a video of their favourite band/song emailed to them
  • a home-made baked good (Icelanders love French chocolate cake and also meringue filled with enormous swathes of whipped cream)

The engagement benefits

The energy and enthusiasm that Secret Friend week creates among colleagues is tremendous. I’ve witnessed the huge kick that people get out of slinking about in a lovely way to surprise and delight their secret friend.

It’s also a bit of a game and a competition. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Icelandic folk is that they love any excuse for a competition.

The aim is for everyone to remain under the radar, so that at the end of the week when everyone’s secret friend is announced, over shared coffee and cake, or a fresh fruit platter, your secret friend is genuinely astonished to find out the identity of who was treating them.

Another engagement benefit of this week of fun is that colleagues get to know each other better as individuals and that it increases co-operation between people.

Kind deeds have been exchanged, people’s levels of oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin have increased, and higher levels of engagement have rippled out across teams.

People feel more connected, more appreciated and more valued.

And in my book, those are three things that any workplace should have more of.

In addition, of course, to ice cream.

Leave a Reply