Ain’t no magic 'til fishmongers show up—Who gives employees permission to engage?

By Mike Cook
Contributing Writer

Very early one morning back in October 2010, I was standing in the entrance to the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle waiting to begin my “World Famous” immersion experience alongside the fish mongers who have in fact made themselves world famous.

Within a few minutes the team leader had convened us, a small group of outsiders there for the day, with the morning shift of the fish mongers and we were off. It was indeed a remarkable experience working alongside one of the most engaged group of people I had ever had the pleasure of meeting.

We hauled boxes of fish packed in ice from the freezer. We scraped and readied the ice displays for the day and stacked the fish neatly so they would have the most customer appeal. We were all covered in fish juice and would certainly smell like fishmongers for hours. This was indeed glorious!

And then I had a thought: So this is it?

Now that the fish were stacked alongside the crab, the specials were noted with handwritten signs and the floor was hosed clean, tomorrow would look pretty much the same as today. At the end of the daypack up the unsold fish, next morning unpack it, rake the ice displays, stack the fish, etc. Day after day, 363 days a year—year after year.

This was the place people made training films about. This was the place tourists came to visit as a “must see” when you are in Seattle. This was the place other businesses holding meetings in Seattle had their managers visit to see what engagement looks like.

Whether obvious or not, what has made the Pike Place Fish Market world famous is not the fish, though it is of the highest quality. It is the “show”—the interaction of the market staff with each other and the customers that brings people in from thousands of miles away. But it wasn’t always so—that is the real story and why I recommend reading ‘When Fish Fly…’  by John Yokoyama , the owner of Pike Place Fish Market.

By his own admission, back in 1986 John Yokoyama was facing the pain of impending bankruptcy when he teamed with a Bellingham business consultant, Jim Bergquist, and began the turnaround that has now become world famous. There is a lot to the process these two began in 1986, and reading about it in John’s own words is much more informative than any of the training films that have been made about the market.

I am well acquainted with Jim Bergquist and John Yokoyama through Jim, so I am privileged to have knowledge of the background to this story that most people do not. As much as anything, John, through his relationship with Jim, created the possibility for the modern day Pike Place Fish Market by giving Jim and then his staff permission to invent a future to engage with, something worth the time of their lives. Keep in mind, this is a fish market: buy the fish, stack the fish, sell the fish, start over.

From what I can tell about how most organizations currently work, there is not really room for employee engagement to become an authentic pursuit, unless someone gives permission, i. e. relinquishes control at least to some degree.

You may ask, “Permission for what exactly?”

I would say permission to do whatever it takes to make the work engaging and still deliver to management what they have promised—a reasonable return on investment.

Let’s be honest for a change, when you say you want something that you could have and yet you persist in not getting it, you are either lying to yourself or working on the wrong things to get where you want to go. The persistence of low levels (by any standard) of employee engagement in any organization, maybe your own, is in my mind on of these types of issues. You could have higher levels of employee engagement but you are not getting them.

So which is it then? Are you lying to yourself or working on the wrong things? In the final analysis it probably ends up being some of both.

The larger question is perhaps: When will you have had enough of the way it is?

The future will belong to companies that find ways to unleash creativity, passion and initiative. I’d love to think that some day management will see the light and recognize a new day has dawned. I am not holding my breath.

Rather than hope for enlightenment, I think I’ll put my money on pain, like that experienced by John Yokoyama.

Management developer Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at

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