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William A. Levinson

Quality Insider

Gideon vs. Disney: Who Would Win?

Two perspectives on engagement

Published: Monday, June 22, 2015 - 14:53

Engagement, according to the Mercer report “Engaging Employees to Drive Global Business Success,” is a decisive competitive advantage, “a psychological state in which employees feel a vested interest in the company’s success and are both willing and motivated to perform to levels that exceed the stated job requirements.” Engagement is contingent on worker commitment and empowerment. Empowerment requires, in turn, training and competency because untrained workers can’t exercise judgment, initiative, or autonomy.

It is highly instructive to compare the biblical story of Gideon to Disney corporations’ layoff of 250 long-term employees late last year. The story of Gideon shows that one engaged worker can be worth a hundred uncommitted and unengaged ones.

Gideon needed to lead a night attack against the Midianites and Amalekites. His plan was to have every soldier carry a trumpet and a torch, the latter inside a clay pot, and blow the trumpet and reveal the torch upon command. The racket and the sudden appearance of hundreds of torches would doubtlessly panic the enemy troops, who would have no idea as to how many enemies had come out of nowhere.

A night attack, however, involves considerable risk. Even today, only the most skilled soldiers are willing to undertake such a mission. A lot of things can go wrong, and it is very easy to mistake friend for foe in the darkness. There is a good chance of shooting or, in ancient times, stabbing one’s own people unless the operation goes perfectly. Any premature action or loud noise can allow the enemy to draw up his soldiers into formations that can repel an attack. If, for example, one of Gideon’s men dropped his pot by accident during the approach to the enemy camp, the exposed torch would have told the enemy sentries that something was amiss. The job was clearly not one for amateurs, or people who lacked commitment.

As reported by the King James Bible (Judges 7.3), God instructed Gideon, “Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead. And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.” The first step was therefore to send away the more than two-thirds of Gideon’s army that was hesitant to fight the enemy. This made eminent sense because fear might easily result in the kind of false move—and it would take only one—that would ruin the operation.

Ten thousand soldiers were still, however, ten thousand opportunities for something to go wrong. It wasn’t enough that they were committed and willing to fight; they also had to have the discipline and training necessary to participate in a night attack.

As Judges 7.4 through 7.7 continues: “And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go.

“So he brought down the people unto the water: and the Lord said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink.

“And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water (as seen in figure 1).

“And the Lord said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand: and let all the other people go every man unto his place.”

Figure 1. Christian Eduard Böttcher (1908), “Gideon selects his army of 300 by observing their manner of drinking from a stream”

The idea was apparently that using one’s hand to drink rather than putting one’s face into the water was a more dignified and disciplined method, and that the ones who drank in the former method would be more reliable. The takeaway is, however, that it was clearly better to have 300 reliable soldiers who would not make a mistake rather than 10,000 who might.

Gideon then launched his night attack, which worked perfectly (as seen in figure 2). Not one of his 300 men exposed his torch prior to the word of command, and the Midianites and Amalekites were caught in what is now called “Condition White,” which means totally unprepared for trouble. Again, it is very easy to mistake friends for foes during a night battle, and this is exactly what happened to Gideon’s targets per Judges 7.22:

“And the three hundred blew the trumpets, and the Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow, even throughout all the host: and the host fled to Bethshittah in Zererath, and to the border of Abelmeholah, unto Tabbath.”

Figure 2. Gideon and His Three Hundred (1907), Providence Lithograph Company

So as you can see, it can actually be better to have 300 engaged, empowered, and committed workers rather than 32,000 uncommitted ones of dubious reliability and competence. The men whom Gideon “laid off,” or, more precisely, did not accept, were almost certainly unpaid volunteers like the ones he accepted. The citizen-soldier of that era usually had to supply his own weapons and serve on his own time, which meant that few people were willing to fight during planting or harvest time. Pay, if any, generally depended on whatever an army could loot from the enemy.

In contrast, the 250 employees whom Disney terminated depended on the company for their livelihoods. In addition, the company directed them to train their replacements before they left. George Santayana said long ago that those who can’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

In the book he wrote with Samuel Crowther, My Life and Work (Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922) Henry Ford, whose committed and engaged workforce turned his company into a world-class economic powerhouse, made very clear what happens to employers who behave in this manner:

“It ought to be the employer's ambition, as leader, to pay better wages than any similar line of business, and it ought to be the workman’s ambition to make this possible.... If an employer urges men to do their best, and the men learn after a while that their best does not bring any reward, then they naturally drop back into ‘getting by.’ But if they see the fruits of hard work in their pay envelope—proof that harder work means higher pay—then also they begin to learn that they are a part of the business, and that its success depends on them and their success depends on it.”

In The Principles of Scientific Management  (Harper Brothers, 1911), Frederick Winslow Taylor commented on what ought to be common sense:

“… after a workman has had the price per piece of the work he is doing lowered two or three times as a result of his having worked harder and increased his output, he is likely entirely to lose sight of his employer’s side of the case and become imbued with a grim determination to have no more cuts if soldiering [i.e., marking time, limiting productivity] can prevent it.”

Soldiering can include not only minimal compliance with the job’s requirements, but also withholding the insights and experience that could make the job far more efficient. If workers expect the benefits of productivity gains to show up in their paychecks, they will share this specialized knowledge with their employer; this was the source of most of the lean manufacturing improvements at Ford. Conversely, if they expect the employer to pay them as little as possible, move their jobs offshore, or lay them off and bring in lower-wage workers, they will quite properly keep this knowledge to themselves. There was a joke in the Soviet Union to the effect that, “They pretend to pay us, so we pretend to work.”

It’s difficult to see how Disney can reasonably expect engagement, commitment, or indeed anything more than perfunctory compliance from the people it is terminating, or how it can expect more from their replacements. This attitude will doubtlessly carry over to the company’s interactions with its customers, and the quality profession can easily foresee the obvious consequences.

6/19 -- Interesting update. According to The New York Times, in late May, about 35 technology employees at Disney/ABC Television in New York and Burbank, California, were told they would be laid off and would have to train their replacements (Julie Preston, “In Turnabout, Disney Cancels Tech Worker Layoffs”). Shortly thereafter Disney changed its mind and told workers to just “consider it as if nothing had happened until further notice,” according to one employee.


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE, is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford’s Universal Code for World-Class Success (Productivity Press, 2013).