Three Lessons on Employee Engagement from the Titanic

December 5, 2014 by

Titanic QuoteI recently was in Belfast, Ireland and had the great pleasure of visiting the museum dedicated to the building, supplying, launching, sinking, and the ocean bottom rediscovery of this famed luxury ocean liner. I’ve been in a lot of museums throughout my life and world travels, and I have to put this one at the top of the list.

Throughout my tour of the museum, and largely because of my passion for the topic of employee engagement, I saw clear business lessons about employee engagement associated with the Titanic.

First and shockingly, the crew of the Titanic had multiple warning signs about dangerous icebergs lurking in the icy waters of the Atlantic. Yet, they dismissed and completely ignored them. The Titanic received no fewer than 7 messages warning of imminent danger. One of the messages came from a nearby ship saying they were surrounded by icebergs and that the Titanic should stop immediately. The Morse code operator on the Titanic actually responded, “Shut up! You are jamming my lines!”

Many corporations have made the same mistake, completely ignoring the signs of disengagement, such as nefarious negativity, gossip-mongering, and employee apathy or ambivalence. One of the reasons the Titanic ignored all of the warning signs was its captain’s and owner’s focus on beating a transatlantic speed record held by its rival line, Cunard. Such misguided intentions and disengagement led to some of the most noteworthy corporate disasters. Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco, to name a few.

Your key take-away: act quickly on the warning signs of disengagement and focus on incremental progress, as opposed to setting records. Engagement should and will be an ongoing journey, not a final destination.

The second and third lessons come from the Titanic’s lifeboats. There were simply not enough lifeboats for the number of passengers on the ship. In addition, the crew let many of the lifeboats leave the ship only half full, leaving the passengers remaining on board to face their chilly deaths.

Your key takeaways are twofold: Ensure you are providing enough and proper resources to the people you hope to engage. Your fully engaged employees are your lifeboats and in most organizations are under-utilized. One great way to fully utilize each of them is to assign unengaged employees a fully engaged mentor.

Lastly, many of the people who sank with the Titanic did so because they had falsely convinced themselves that a ship that large and reputable was incapable of sinking. Countless organizations have mirrored a similar state of denial, only to face terrible business outcomes.

Your key takeaways: make your journey toward world-class engagement an honest one by hiring a third-party reputable firm to measure engagement levels through an employee engagement survey. Lastly, when receiving such candid and honest feedback from your people, act on it.


Kevin Sheridan is an internationally-recognized Keynote Speaker, a New York Times Best Selling Author, and one of the most sought-after voices in the world on the topic of Employee Engagement. For five years running, he has been honored on Inc. Magazine’s top 100 Leadership Speakers in the world, as well as Inc.’s top 100 experts on Employee Engagement. He was also honored to be named to The Employee Engagement Award’s Top 101 Global Influencers on Employee Engagement of 2017.

Having spent thirty years as a high-level Human Capital Management consultant, Kevin has helped some of the world’s largest corporations rebuild a culture that fosters productive engagement, earning him several distinctive awards and honors. Kevin’s premier creation, PEER®, has been consistently recognized as a long-overdue, industry-changing innovation in the field of Employee Engagement. His first book, Building a Magnetic Culture, made six of the best seller lists including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. He is also the author of The Virtual Manager, which explores how to most effectively manage remote workers.

Kevin received a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School in 1988, concentrating his degree in Strategy, Human Resources Management, and Organizational Behavior. He is also a serial entrepreneur, having founded and sold three different companies.