What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement

Written by Grovo

A lot of L&D leaders are spending their summer days cooped up inside, thinking L&D thoughts, and worrying. Specifically, many are anxious about employee engagement. How exactly does one get a changing workforce to engage in the work they do every day? How should we define engagement beyond platitudes? What does engagement feel like?

Luckily, summer is jam band season. And if there’s anything on this earth that can serve as a handy analogy—no, a paragon—of workplace engagement, it’s an improvisational jam.

If you really want to know what engagement is like, head to your nearest musical instrument and learn to play it…well. Learn to play with others, but not just songs you know. Get comfortable going off into the musical woods with them, improvising and making mistakes together and bonding closer than you’ve ever bonded before. Get ready to get weird.

Alternatively, if mastery of an instrument is more effort than you’re willing to spend investigating the notion of engagement, you could just attend a jam band concert. Maybe you caught the historic Grateful Dead sendoff over the Fourth of July weekend; maybe it inspired you to forget your mortgage and follow a band around all summer. Maybe burritos are the only currency you use and you like to spend your hard-earned burritos on this band. Whatever your choice, stay upright and lucid long enough to absorb these cosmic truths that musical jamming can teach us about employee engagement.

Engagement happens when preparation meets momentum. Think about a quartet of talented musicians, all in a circle, playing together. Imagine they start improvising. In each of their minds, everything disappears but the music they’re making. It’s like a group meditation, but one that has tangible inputs (each individual’s playing) and a tangible output (the song). They probably have many concerns outside of this circle: bills, insecurities, maybe even doubts about the band’s future. But in the moment, radical presence is the only level of participation allowed. Each of these musicians is fully in on the sound they’re making together. They may even be getting paid to jam together; maybe they’re a professional act. In the musical flow, they’re not thinking about the job, only about doing it well. That’s engagement.

It starts with skills development. A jam can’t happen just with a bunch of musical neophytes. It can be attempted, of course, but it’ll sound like this. Each participant has to bring a lot of technical skill to the table in order to get to the buttery flow you hear below.

In the workplace, being skilled is even harder than getting to be a guitar god. At least the frets of a guitar stay in the same spot day after day, letting a guy like Eric Clapton develop a lifetime’s mastery of the instrument. With workplace skills, things change constantly, and what you knew yesterday won’t be relevant for long. It’d be like trying to play a solo on some kind of malicious, robotic sitar (an instrument with moveable frets).

Alignment is a critical prerequisite. Organizational alignment is a crucial element of engagement. Imagine if these musicians tried to play together from different rooms, without being able to hear one another. They might all be individually great, but together they would sound terrible. The same is true of leaders trying to leverage the strengths of contributors on a team. Alignment is important for everyone to be proud of what they’re doing and understand how it fits into the whole.

Culture is knowing how others will play. As the improvisors play, each member knows their instrument, and how it sounds, and the kinds of contributions they can make. Each knows they have the power to influence the evolving whole, and that the others can do the same. That’s why it’s a huge help to know the personalities and expectations of the other musicians. In chaotic jams when no one knows what anyone else will do, musicians try to play over one another, parts get dropped, and it’s a mess. When there’s good alignment, everyone feels comfortable, and it heightens their own spontaneous creativity. This dynamic is a bit like what culture represents to a company: it’s understanding how others fit into the group cohesion. It’s a knowledge that encourages creativity, and therefore, engagement, with the product on which the team is collaborating.

With workplace skills, things change constantly, and what you knew yesterday won’t be relevant for long.

Jamming demands spontaneous, competent creativity. The goal of training, whether job skills or scales on an instrument, is to be able to meet unknown challenges, and an unknown future, confidently. Only when a musician is self-assured enough to know that they’ll be ready to play along with whatever comes can they become fully engaged in the act of playing and not hampered by insecurity. Employees work the same way. They need to know what they’re doing, how it matters, and how it relates to others; but they also need to be sure that they’re ready to face any challenges they might encounter, and more importantly, the changes that will certainly occur. Engagement requires participants to trust themselves just as much as it requires them to hear the larger picture.

When the band is playing cohesively, they get in the zone. And when the band gets in the zone, they lose their disparate, encumbering thoughts and tune in to the group experience. This is the height of engagement. During an especially tight jam, you might hear a musician say that they’re feeling “in the pocket.” It means everyone is aligned and feeling the same rhythm. To them, there is nothing else going on, and they can do no wrong.

Not all workplace engagement has to be so transcendent. But it’s not hard to get to that level of fully present teamwork if you have the key ingredients: skills preparation, alignment, culture, and confidence.

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