What "The Dude" can teach us about employee engagement

By Mike Cook
Management Developer  

What with springtime clearly upon us here in the Northwest the time feels right for a visit from an old friend—“The Dude”, “El Duderino”, “His Dudeness.”

Of course, there is only one man who answers to all these titles and he is Jeffrey Lebowski, the central character of the Coen brothers’ 1998 film classic, “The Big Lebowski.”

I offer “The Dude” as one of the more unlikely yet profound mentors for those of us involved with the workplace factors that contribute to employee engagement.

One Saturday evening a couple of years ago when as my wife and I sat having dinner in a Mount Vernon public house, the restaurant was suddenly flooded with a cadre of men in blue bathrobes, shorts, flip-flops and dark glasses—and it was January.

The local classic-film theatre had just shown ‘The Big Lebowski,’ and in apt homage this crowd had attended in costume.

The following morning as I sat in services at my church, it occurred to me that what I had received the previous evening was a sign. It was time to address authenticity, and there was no one with a keener sense of the truly authentic than Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.”

When he first came into our lives, “The Dude” was not well received by critics or the box office.

Many of us upstanding, solid-character types may have had considerable difficulty admitting our identification with a man who at first seemed like the classic “slacker” our parents raised us not to be.

So, this “prophet” of our times languished as something of cinematic obscurity.

However, over the years he gathered a cult following that has bloomed into annual conclaves in Louisville, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Orlando, Chicago, Seattle, and likely more places.

What stronger endorsement can there be for authenticity and efficacy than sustained reverence and participation?

Jeffrey Lebowski—every thing about the man serves as an outright rejection of that in us and our organizations that is not authentic.

His personification may be somewhat easier to address if we don’t consider him literally but instead as an extreme expression of what employees might be like if they did not fear retribution for being honest.

“The Dude” eliminates this fear by staying gainfully unemployed and simply not giving a crap. For many of us, this is just too honest.

Absent this respect, “The Dude”, like many of our employees, is not above using us for his own purposes, thereby perpetuating the notion that the best we can expect from the employer-employee relationship is a sort of sad, smirking conspiracy where “I’ll use you and you’ll use me,” and mediocre is what we’ll settle for as long as we make our numbers.

If we cannot take our guidance from a man who shops for milk at midnight in his bathrobe, then maybe we’ll listen to James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, the authors of “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want,”

It’s not such a big leap to instead say: what employees really want.

Gilmore and Pine go to great pains in their book to expose us to the personal expressions “The Dude” simply lived.

“His Dudeness” rejected the inauthentic as an outright form of violence with the memorable words, “This aggression will not stand, man!”

As academics and researchers, the authors provide legitimacy to the conversation by classifying different shades of the authentic.

– Natural authenticity—raw, of-the-earth, rustic, stripped down and best of all sustainable

– Original authenticity—the first of its kind

– Exceptional authenticity—stresses uniqueness, the aesthetic appeal, not like anything else

– Referential authenticity—evokes an iconic time, person, group or place

– Influential authenticity—implies or provokes change

If your place of work does not have the appeal of one or more of these categories, you can be sure neither Gilmore, Pine nor “The Dude” would be found there, at least not for very long.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

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