What John Lennon and The Beatles can teach us about workforce engagement

Four men on a zebra crossing Inspiration, passion, enthusiasm, motivation, engagement. Call it whatever you want, but in business you need it. Without it your team or organization is roadkill.

As mentioned in a previous post, the lack of employee engagement in the workplace is astounding. Gallup, which tracks this on a regular basis, reports that only 13% of global workers are engaged in their work. Even worse, 24% of workers are “actively disengaged”—who are “liable to spread negativity to coworkers.” (We’ll discuss the costs of this in a moment.)

The “engagement factor” is something the top rock bands have understood and consciously applied. I have previously written about the night that Pete Townshend and The Who discovered the secret in a London tavern in 1964. Subsequently their passionate performances drew young fans by the busload to their early gigs. But how John Lennon and The Beatles discovered the power of engagement is an even better story.

Lennon, when performing with the Quarry Men in 1957 (just before Paul McCartney and George Harrison joined the group), played in a band competition and was soundly trounced by Nicky Cuff and the Sunnnyside Skiffle Group, who put on a madcap show. (Cuff was a four-foot-six-inches-tall ball of energy who bounced around the stage with wild abandon.) Two years later, in a battle of the bands, Lennon’s group—with McCartney and Harrison now on board—were beaten again by Nicky Cuff's band whose enthusiasm knew no bounds. Lennon recognized that his own band (called Johnny and the Moondogs, but soon to become The Beatles) had more talent than Cuff’s, so it was a major irritation to lose the competition. But it finally dawned on him that excitement mattered.

The final step occurred the next year in Hamburg, Germany, when the owner of the Kaiserkeller demanded The Beatles put on an animated presentation to pull in crowds in the city’s red light district. “Mach schau” (“make show”) was the order one night and the band responded, after several rounds of beer, with an over-the-top performance that was more parody than anything else—including Lennon and McCartney doing splits, leaping off the stage, cursing at the audience, and screaming their way through their rock & roll repertoire. After pumping it up this way for several nights it soon became second nature for them and the Beatles’ performance prowess was born. By the time they returned to their native Liverpool, they were a different band—passionate, intense, raucous, explosive. So much so that twelve months later their new manager, Brian Epstein, had to rein in some of their excess energy and tone down their show!

In mainstream business an inspired, engaged workforce is positively correlated to business growth—as thoroughly documented in Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce Report. And the cost of disengagement is astronomical. Gallup says the lower productivity of “actively disengaged” workers costs the U.S. economy between $450 to $550 billion annually!

And how do you create an engaged workforce? How do team members, associates, partners, or employees become passionate about their work? That would take a book to explain in detail—which (surprise!) I happen to have written, but not yet published. I can mention a few obvious ways: get everyone involved in decision-making; build a shared—and uplifting—vision for the future; recognize people’s contributions; and create a culture that encourages "play" (a prerequisite for innovation).

Also, for the individuals and teams themselves: being energetic, passionate, and self-expressive is a choice. It’s a ridiculously simple but tried-and-proven formula. If you exaggerate certain behaviors—like enthusiastically answering the phone or cranking up the energy in meetings—those behaviors will soon become habitual. That’s EXACTLY how The Who and The Beatles became such dynamic performance teams. The decided to come alive, they amped up their energy to absurd levels, and the new practices eventually became habitual.

I should add that Gallup's survey results for the North American workforce are more promising—30% engaged instead of 13%—but nothing to celebrate.

Footnote: For pre-1962 John Lennon/Beatles facts my source is always Jude Southerland Kessler’s enhanced biography of Lennon, Shoulda Been There—an indispensable treasure trove for Beatlephiles.

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  1. I'll thank you again for exposing me to Jude's books. Grand examples of playing big, in addition to being fascinating reads.

    My musical mentor, Gene Thorpe, told all his students over and over and OVER that as long as we weren't *bad* players, as long as we achieved mediocrity, but then put on a SHOW, we'd knock the socks off any audience we wanted.

    We did, in fact, achieve mediocrity on our instruments (except Dave my lead guitarist, who was a wonder) but more importantly, we put on a show: heckling the hecklers, dancing like wounded rhinos (my only possible style) and playing what the crowd wanted, not what WE thought they needed to hear.

    Best Beloved and I tell our clients that our goal is for them to love us more than their own children. They laugh, but they get it.

    Boy, I sure wish there was a book I could refer folks to for all this groovy information . . .

  2. The Beatles weren't that great a show compared to the other English groups of that time. The Stones had it all over them as rock 'n roll performers.

    1. The Beatles of 1960-61 were a different animal from the Beatles of 1964 on. Originally they were a loud, raucous R&R band with a booming bass and Pete Best's heavy foot. (They also used to curse at their audience and eat food on stage.) While other Liverpool bands played in matching suits they wore leather jackets and cowboy boots, while sporting long DA haircuts. They were the hard rock of their day. But then manager Brian Epstein came along and cleaned them up in early 1962, putting them in Eduardian suits, teaching them to bow, etc. Pete Best (their original drummer) told me all about it in an interview I did with him in 2007. http://businesslessonsfromrock.com/notes/2007/08/interview-with-a-beatle

  3. I think that step 1 in creating an engaged workforce is to remember Rule 1: "Your team is a reflection of you, and you are a reflection of your own thoughts."

    If you're a leader, your team will look at you for cues and signs. So guess what? They'll mirror your own behaviour. Are you disengaged yourself? Then you can bet your bottom dollar / pound / yen / euro that your team will pick up on it and show it back. Do you tolerate slipshod work and inconsistent behaviour in your team? Surprise: tolerance = tacit approval = what you get. Want engagement? Be engaged, show engagement, encourage engagement, reward engagement and demonstrate consequences for disengagement.

    1. "As above so below." And yet politicians (like New Jersey's Governor and apparent Presidential nominee Chris Christie) absolve themselves of any responsibility for the criminal deeds of their underlings.

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