Could the secret to employee engagement lie in helping us all find balance in our lives?

Browsing my LinkedIn feed the other day I came across a reference to a famous speech by the ex-Coca-Cola CEO Brian Dyson about the ‘Five Balls of Life’. Never having heard of it, and intrigued, I read on.

Often named as one of the most powerful 30 second speeches*, it goes something like this:

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

Wise words?

Easier said than done, I think. It got me thinking, if we know this to be true, then why do many of us put so much more time and effort into keeping the work ball in the air? (Making exceptions here for those with exceptional vocational callings, or whose lives have taken the kind of turn that leads them to take refuge in their work.) For the majority of us who work to live, is it simply the financial risk of dropping the work ball, the one that enables us to focus on the others, that means we take such good care of it?

Or maybe it’s about feeling in control? We feel we have more choices when it comes to our own health, our relationships with our family and friends, or our spiritual destiny (whether this be enriched through religion, yoga or rock music). Often at work we can feel like we lack autonomy, and that we have to respond to the demands or whims of others.

Perhaps it’s about feeling confident and supported? We tend to know our friends and family have our backs, but can we always say the same of our bosses, colleagues and co-workers?  Do we have to be more vigilant? Certainly, for me, work has always been a lot easier (and more enjoyable) when you know you can rely on strong and supportive relationships.

Or is it about our ‘why’, our raison d’etre, or sense of purpose. We tend to know innately what we mean to our families, and draw strength and comfort from that. But do we always know what difference we’re making through our work? When we’re unclear on ‘why’ we’re doing something, it’s harder to prioritise and make decisions. Stuff takes longer and requires more effort.

Food for thought

It may be all, some, or none of these things for different individuals.  Dyson’s ‘Five Balls of life’ is certainly food for thought, and a nice way of reminding us of our priorities in life. But what also struck me was that if the things that could help us better balance that work ball – feeling in control, confident and supported, and understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing – are some of the same factors that affect engagement at work. What if the magic secret to engaging employees is just helping us all to find balance in our lives?   Could it actually be that easy? Unlikely, but it’s something for engagement professionals and leaders alike to consider.


*actually a bit of digging shows it was part of a much longer address in 1991, but why spoil a good story.