Barry Shannon: How can employers prevent a ‘For who? For what?’ attitude from developing?

Employers can ask a number of key questions to build a picture of how good their staff engagement is.
Employers can ask a number of key questions to build a picture of how good their staff engagement is. Employers can ask a number of key questions to build a picture of how good their staff engagement is.

IT'S coming up to Christmas, so maybe it’s time for a winter’s tale (apologies for just how seriously tenuous that segue was).

Ricky Watters was a very successful running back in the NFL. He first played for San Francisco (winning a Superbowl with them), moved to Philadelphia and then Seattle, picking up 5 pro-bowl awards along the way.

A decorated player, with a decade long career in pro football (and currently in the running for a place in the 2023 Hall of fame intake), he is probably best remembered for four words he uttered in an interview while playing for the Eagles.

Watters had moved to Philadelphia in 1995 and in their first regular season game that year the Eagles played Tampa Bay. At one point in the game (which Philadelphia lost) the ball was thrown towards Watters by QB Randall Cunningham.

It wasn’t a perfect throw, but it was catchable. Watters however could see that if he caught the ball, he would be on the receiving end of a massive hit from a Tampa defender.

Watters declined the thump and a date with the turf by making a less than exemplary effort to catch the pass. As they say in GAA circles, he ‘shortened his step’.

When asked in the post-game press conference why he essentially pulled out of the catch, Watters said the words that have haunted him the rest of his career: “For who? For what?” (they were so famous he later used them as the title of his autobiography)

Watters made the cardinal sin of suggesting there was not sufficient motivation there for him to make the effort to catch the pass and get clattered in return.

'For who? For What?' The Ricky Watters autobiography.
'For who? For What?' The Ricky Watters autobiography. 'For who? For What?' The Ricky Watters autobiography.

Now, would he have made the same decision (and uttered the same comments) during his time in San Francisco?

When he was playing alongside the teammates with whom he won a Superbowl, in front of fans who chanted his name and wore jerseys with his name on for four seasons? Who knows. I’d guess not though.

Certainly, the Philadelphia fans (a fairly fanatical bunch; look them up, they are not to be messed with) did not take kindly to his comments.

They felt he should be making that catch for the Eagles, the team who were paying his wages, his new teammates and for them, the fans supporting him. Instead, they got ‘for who, for what?’

Now what does this have to do with life almost three decades later? Glad you asked. Covid was a watershed, a sea change exacerbated by the current cost of living crisis.

It occasioned a great re-examination of life, the universe and everything among employees. Questions about priorities were asked, souls searched and mindsets realigned.

People began to wonder what was genuinely important to them, what they were really motivated by, what they truly valued. Then they compared the answer to these questions to what was currently happening in their lives.

In light of that and given that Christmas and the New year period is a traditional time for examining career and lifestyle choices, then Ricky Watters provokes a question that employers really do need to consider.

What is it that they do (or could do) which prevents employees adopting a ‘for who, for what’ attitude in their workplace?

Unfortunately for employers there is no one simple solution as employees are typically motivated by a range of different things; however, there are areas of the business that can (and should) be examined:

Is your company well thought of externally? Do you onboard well, making employees feel good from an invite to interview right through to the first day, week and month in a new job.

Is the work that staff do exciting and/or fulfilling? Do staff feel supported and in control of their work? Do they feel they can positively contribute?

Is there a good culture in the company and has it been effectively communicated? Is it lived from the top down?

Are people treated fairly and equitably? Does the company act responsibly and ethically? Can you have fun at work?

Are there events for staff to socialise and spend quality time with colleagues? Do you have good facilities?

Is staff welfare and health seen as important? Do you offer decent pay and benefits?

Is there the opportunity for upward career development, or personal development if climbing the ladder isn’t for some?

Ask these questions and you’ll start to build a picture of how good your staff engagement is.

Communication is key; town halls, briefings, one-to-one meetings, appraisals, informal chats, surveys, inductions, stay and exit interviews etc all offer opportunities to ask and understand what is important to your workforce.

Use them to gather feedback and opinion, which in turn can shape policy and approach.

Don’t have staff asking ‘for who, for what’; instead put them in a position where they can confidently say ‘for them, for that’...

Barry Shannon is head of HR at STATSports