Want to know what is going on in our organization? Eat a meal in the employee lunch room!



W. Michael Phibbs

Have you ever watched Undercover Boss? Do you recognize similar problems in your work environment and wish that one day you would have a chance to tell your boss what you see as the problems hampering your organization and potential solutions? Fire Chiefs for decades have told up and coming Front Line Officers that if they want to know what is going on in their organizations they should eat a meal at a station. You build trust while breaking bread together. While sitting down together for a meal, fire fighters will tell you exactly what the feel, both good and bad. This sound advice resonates through all segments of public safety to the public sector. Steve Jobs once said of turnaround expert, “But how can he be an expert when he eats his lunch alone in his office.”1 Another widely endorsed action that will increase your understanding of what is really happening in your organization is MBWA (Manage By Walking About). MBWA is less effective than breaking down barriers over a meal, but the basic principal is the same, get out of your office and talk to the troops who do the work.

As years go by and we move up in ranks it is easy to become lost in our own office siloes. A new term, “Cubiment”, short for “cubical environment” has been created to describe how people spend their entire working day in the solitary environment of their cubicles (Cubical Farm is now too long for our even faster paced world). Most do not hear from their boss unless something is not going right. Even the most well-meaning manager can become fixated in clearing out their daily In-box. Little by little, day after day, we slowly become disassociated from the most important people in an organization. We cannot create organizational energy through email and power points expounding how proud we are of our employees. Human interaction and connection is the way real leaders become change agents.

Lunch can be a sacred time to spend with others you know and trust. Through the process of breaking bread together, leaders not only learn what is going on, but also have an opportunity to discuss ideas for the future. They can discuss where their organizations are going and obtain unfiltered feedback from their team members. Free flowing ideas will not happen at a banquet, or corporate outing, but will arise at a table in your own lunchroom. If you only eat at the Executive Lunchroom or at your desk, you may find it difficult to find people who trust you enough to eat with, at least at first. Over time, when people get accustomed to seeing you, some brave person will approach you and want to talk, and you should do just that, talk, about anything. You will be amazed at what you learn. I have seen many managers become re-inspired and become highly effective leaders through these little lunch room chats. You get a chance to really find out what is going on inside of your organizations. You can mentor people and learn who the up in coming leaders really are. In short, by breaking bread allows you have positive employee engagement.

What are you waiting for? Today, or tomorrow, set an appointment time in your Outlook calendar to eat with someone new. Either invite someone to sit with you or go over to a table ask to sit with a group. Engage them in small talk. It may take a while to break down the silos and build trust. By talking to people today, you head off problems of tomorrow. Pack a lunch and realize there is no limit to what you can be accomplish by breaking bread with someone new.


1.Becoming Steve Jobs, by Brent Schelander and Rick Tetzeli,

Three lines which challenge views on public safety engagement.

VCFA conference draft 4

In January 2010 three public safety organizations participated in a ground breaking study on engagement in public safety. In the course of the study over 600 police and fire officers and administrative staff responded to questions relating directly to their engagement. What made this study different was it was developed by serving public safety officers who have placed their lives on the line with the rest of their team mates. They not only know the culture, but have received advanced degrees in H.R, and so developed questions that were directly relevant to the professions. While most surveys take a top down approach to the engagement of the employees this study looked at engagement from the bottom up. Change your perspective and new insights arise in looking for  the causes of old problems. Then new solutions can be developed more likely to work instead of the same old solutions that may not be relevant to a new generation of workers.


The study included 49 questions pertaining to the level of knowledge employees had of their organization prior to employment, assessed their intentions to stay with their organization, as well as equipment issues, and internal communication issues. Some of the results of the study were published by the FBI in the December 2011 edition of the Law Enforcement Bulletin.


Conventional wisdom says employees begin work in public safety with enthusiasm and as the years go by their engagement slowly drops. Well , the research suggests otherwise. The problem on the loss of engagement is not solely with the individual but on the organization as well when it contributes to the disengagement of employees through the lack of responsiveness to the needs of employees.  When you look at the PowerPoint, at the bottom of the blog, you will see three lines. These are the three lines which redefine how we need to look at public safety engagement. The lines represent the question and results of the most important question in the study, what drives your engagement or disengagement:

  • My organization is mostly responsive to my ideas and I have increased my performance and willingness to suggest ideas: 1

1.8% .

  • My organization is mostly responsive to ideas and responsive to ideas and I am satisfied with meeting organizational performance standards and do not wan to suggest ideas: 2.3%.
  • My organization is not always responsive to my idea, but O continue to suggest ideas and maintain my high level of performance: 51.1%.
  • My organization is not always responsive to my ideas, but I will continue to maintain an acceptable level of performance and suggest some ideas: 27.4% .
  • My organization is mostly responsive to my ideas and I have increased my performance and willingness to suggest ideas: 1



People do not simply give up when their organizations are not living up to expectations. No, they fight, scream, and kick, before they finally give up and sink into disengagement. People do try to suggest ideas and make changes which they believe will improve their organizations. It’s when they feel they are ignored they begin to give up, and this is not something that starts at 10 years into a person’s career. We found it may begin immediately upon employment. That’s why it is so critical to be honest with applicants about who you, the organization, are and provide a realistic picture to perspective employees. Once someone is hired and they feel they have been misled to they are going to be upset and get angry. Do you want an angry, disengaged, employee who be on your payroll for the next 20 years. It’s not worth it just to met your recruiting goals.


As individuals move up their organizational charts with more responsibility, and take on a more strategic role, they begin to loose connections with the first line officers. As the commander makes long term strategic decisions based on his or her needs, and that of the organizations budget, they can forget that this decision making  has a real world impact on the officers and their willingness to perform. The officers in turn, try to either say, “I’m on board and let’s rock, “or “Hey this is a bad idea and I have a better, cheaper, way of doing something.” When the officers feel they can not get their feeling known to people who can make changes, or worse yet feel they are being ignored, they become frustrated. Frustrations turn to anger, and anger turns to disengagement.


This does not have to happen, but to avoid it the command staffs must open their eyes, and try new things. For instance, give up on out dated managerial ideas that were created during the “greatest generation”, and stop listening solely to professors who have little or no real world experience and even less in  public safety simply regurgitate ideas that worked in the past and rehash old studies in order to obtain job security in their university. No, simply think outside of the box. Better yet, create a new box for others to try and think outside of. Do something radical, get out of your office and talk to the officers. If they have an idea which makes sense, is financially viable, and benefits the organization, let them run with it. Take your egos out of the equation for the benefit of your most valued asset: your officers who do the grunt work everyday.


Take a look at the Power Point, again. If every organization is operating at the same effective level, imagine what you could do if you move simply 15% of the people who said their organization was not listening to them but they were fully engaged and move them to the 11% who stated their organization was fully responsive and they were fully engaged. You would be a Rock Star in the world of Performance Management, with only 26% of your organization stating they were fully engaged. People would be beating down your doors to find out how your organization is now the mega-star in public safety.  You can begin to do this by simply changing your top down perspective to a bottom up perspective and make the changes that need to be done. If you don’t believe me, try it and see. If I am wrong then I guarantee you will have still learned something new about your organization. If I am correct, prepare to move into your new home, because your local government is going to raise your salary or a large organization is going to recruit you. It is your choice, to remain the same mediocre organization or seek to become the Rock Star Leader you have the potential to become.