What Shelter Dogs Taught Me about Employee Engagement

One day while volunteering at the animal shelter, my interactions with two of the dogs — Mia and Harper — reminded me of a fundamental truth about employee engagement.

It’s a truth that frequently gets ignored, and because of that, most employees are not nearly as productive or as engaged as they could be.

Mia was a high-spirited pit bull mix who needed some polishing up of her walking-on-a-leash-without-chomping-down-on-the-leash-and-dragging-me-around skills. Whenever she walked without grabbing the leash and pulling, I would praise her enthusiastically.

No praise really needed

After putting Mia back in her pen, I moved on to Harper, another energetic pit bull mix. Harper loved playing with tennis balls and other flying objects. His enthusiasm for all things airborne knew no bounds. Given the chance, he would gladly do it all day, every day.

Each time he returned with the ball or Frisbee and place it before me, I would enthusiastically praise him: “Way to go boy! Good boy, Harper!”

Then I realized something.

Harper didn’t need any praise from me. He already loved what we were doing. He just wanted as much opportunity to do it as possible. Chasing after tennis balls and Frisbees was intrinsically rewarding to him. No extrinsic reward was required to motivate him to do that.

However, his shelter sidekick Mia was a different story. Because the task I wanted her to do was NOT intrinsically rewarding to her — in fact, the opposite of the desired behavior was intrinsically rewarding to her — I needed to apply extrinsic rewards until her performance “Met Expectations.”

One-size-fits-all approaches to employee engagement

It got me to thinking about how too often when it comes to employee engagement and management, we use a one-size-fits-all approach. We take aggregated engagement survey results and apply the findings across the organization. We encourage managers to execute in a uniform manner the new engagement-enhancing behaviors.

However, engagement is NOT a one-size-fits-all experience.

Engagement is an individual experience. It takes place one employee at a time.

We see evidence that an aggregated, one-size-fits-all approach to engagement is not sufficient when we look at the whole engagement industry. Despite millions of words having been written on the topic and millions of dollars having been spent on improving employee engagement, scores remain dismally low both in the U.S. and globally.

A HUGE problem

This reality did not go unnoticed in the most recent Gallup report on global engagement, State of the American Workplace:

While the state of the U.S. economy has changed substantially since 2000, the state of the American workplace has not. Currently, 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work, and the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is roughly 2-to-1, meaning that the vast majority of U.S. workers (70 percent) are not reaching their full potential — a problem that has significant implications for the economy and the individual performance of American companies. Gallup’s research shows that employee engagement remains flat when left unmanaged.”

In Despite Your Best Efforts, Why Aren’t Your Employees More Engaged? Dr. Jacob Schneid, creator of the Employee Performance Optimizer engagement tool and I wrote about this unfortunate reality.

So, what to do?

First, recognize that each employee has their own unique “employee engagement recipe.” To get the best from each employee requires understanding their unique recipe.

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Second, for managers to use each employee’s engagement recipe, they need to identify the right ingredients: The particular engagement drivers that work best for that employee. This requires engaging employees in productive information-gathering conversations. This in turn requires that your managers have the conversation skills necessary to foster candid, unguarded conversations.

These conversations can be informal and unstructured or they can involve tools such as TalentKeepers First Fit Survey or The MindSuite’s Employee Performance Optimizer. These types of tools provide managers and their direct reports with more precise, actionable information and insights.

Third, recognize that if you want to engage today’s employee, you need to use 21st Century management practices. Don’t try to get great results in a knowledge economy using the same “carrot and stick” approach used in the early 20th century for maximizing the productivity of production workers.

The importance of updating one’s approach to employee motivation was eloquently articulated by Dan Pink, author of Drive, in his popular TED Talk on The Puzzle of Motivation. Citing fascinating research on how extrinsic rewards actually stifle creativity and innovation, Pink explains why using “carrots and sticks” to motivate knowledge workers does not work. In fact, this approach to employee motivation has the opposite of its intended effect when applied to knowledge work.

It actually decreases performance.

Managing knowledge workers

According to humaneering pioneer Dr. Jim Pepitone, when managing knowledge workers, the goal is NOT to manage the worker, but to “champion the worker and manage the environment.” This means that the manager’s job isn’t to motivate the knowledge worker. The manager’s job isn’t to control the knowledge worker’s performance by using carrots and sticks. If the right person was hired, they already want to excel at the work they find intrinsically rewarding.

With knowledge workers, the manager’s job is to do everything in their power to create an environment that facilitates the knowledge worker performing at their best.

Are your managers doing that? When managing knowledge workers, borrow from the Book of Harper.

Don’t try to boost productivity and manage performance using extrinsic rewards. Instead, create the conditions that enable employees to experience mastery, which is intrinsically rewarding. Set them up for “the Thrill of Victory” rather than the “Agony of Defeat.” Remove as many barriers as possible that interfere with them performing at their best and experiencing mastery on a regular basis.

If you do that, you will unleash the power of intrinsic motivation, and with it, enjoy more engaged employees who provide greater economic value to your organization.

Now what?

  • Amp up your education of hiring managers around the critical role they play in employee engagement. Help them realize employee engagement is their responsibility and should not be outsourced to HR.
  • Encourage managers to start soliciting individual engagement information.
  • Educate your managers on what components of the employee experience they need “intel” on if they want to not only have happy, motivated employees, but also employees who are capable of performing at 100 percent.
  • Provide training and coaching for managers on how to facilitate candid conversations with employees so they feel safe enough to give candid feedback.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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