by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones | August 8, 2012, Harvard Buisness Review
They are all over the Games. They greet you at the airport. They direct you from the trains. They guide you through the Olympic Park. Danny Boyle acknowledged them as the key to the success of the opening ceremony.
There are 70,000 of them, constituting nearly half of the Olympic workforce, Britain’s biggest peacetime mobilization of people since the Second World War. They make this extraordinary event possible.
They are the volunteers … and they are everywhere.
Their approach is a joy. They talk to strangers with enthusiasm. They make jokes about the weather. They are helpful and polite. They love what they are doing. They say “have a nice day.” And they mean it.
When visitors marvel about the spirit of the games, the volunteers are a very big part of it. They are drawn from every corner of the UK and every background. Filling their ranks are students and pensioners, the unemployed alongside high flyers. A very senior oil executive who is a neighbor of ours was at Heathrow greeting incoming teams at 5:00 in the morning. He loved it.
What’s more, their enthusiasm is contagious. It affects others who are “normal” employees. Airport staff seem to have a new spring in their step. Policemen have a smile. The underground staff are really keen to help you on your way. The people cleaning tables at the food stalls pause to ask how you are.
What these workers are doing is exceeding the normal expectations of their roles. And what a difference it makes. We get carried along, too. As “customers“? Well, not really. We feel in partnership, sharing a joint enthusiasm for what is unfolding in front of us. We are in this together as people.
A theme of our recent research is that, when people interact with an enterprise, they don’t want to encounter mere role-players—no matter how skilful they might be in their roles. They want authenticity, a sense that people are personally invested in their work. Curiously, the unpaid volunteers are providing just that sense. They are expressing their personal quirks and foibles in the seemingly mundane activities of giving people directions. They are expressing overwhelming enthusiasm and pride in taking part in something positive and important.
So what can the corporate world learn from all this? Certainly it is a world in which managers talk solemnly about their “engagement” efforts. And certainly that is because disengagement—a deep-rooted disenchantment with work—is a pervasive problem.
The Olympic volunteers remind us what real engagement looks like. They show us what organizations that fan the enthusiasm of their participants can deliver. They give new life to the old-fashioned notion that good work gives us good societies.
Of course, we sometimes see such passion in the business world, in the wild enthusiasms of R&D professionals in innovative engineering and pharmaceutical companies. Or more mundanely, when a shop assistant dispenses honest advice, drawing on long experience and real empathy for the problem a customer is trying to solve. We see it in the greengrocer who points with pride to the freshest vegetables, and the bartender who greets you by name and knows your favorite drink.
The “authentic organizations” we’ve found in our research are set apart by these small markers of humanity—and we’re finding that they outperform their competitors in the marketplace.
Here’s what we’re concluding: If companies organized more to draw on and fuel enthusiasms, and less to maximize efficiency, the problem of disengagement would be gone forever. The volunteers of the Olympics hint at what an alternative customer experience might look like. And it looks very exciting.
Rob Goffee is a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. Gareth Jones is a visiting professor at IE Business School, in Madrid, and a Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School. They are the authors of Cleverand Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?.