How to Improve Employee Engagement the Daniel Pink Way

June 23, 2015
Robin Dominik Havre
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Want to know how to improve employee engagement? The short answer to this question is one word long: autonomy.

But, this requires some explanation. Not least of all because most businesses in the world have been doing things so wrong for so many years.

To get into this point, we’re going to lean on a principle uncovered by the legendary author and speaker, Daniel Pink. In one talk given for TED, Pink discusses the subject in some detail. You can see the full video below, too.

If you’re not sure who Daniel Pink is, he’s a best-selling author, contributing author to many major publications including the Harvard Business Review, New York Times and more. He’s largely agreed to be one of the most forward-thinking individuals in business leadership in the world.

At the beginning of another talk, Pink opens with a horrifying statistic.

Quote image from Daniel Pinks says “52% of full-time workers are not involved in, enthusiastic about or committed to their work. Another 18% are actively disengaged.”

That means around three in 10 employees are actively engaged which, let’s face it, is a pretty depressing number. It’s time to see what we’re doing wrong. And this brings us to the first part of the problem.

1. Incentivised motivation is limited

Daniel Pink believes this is a problem with technology. But not the kind of technology you might immediately think of, like your iPhone. Pink condenses 50 years of social science studying on the subject of motivation into a few simple words:

“If-then” motivation is great for simple and short tasks. It’s not so great for complex and long-term tasks.

The idea is that people are regularly motivated by rewards. But it only actually works for the easy stuff. Anything more complex and the promise of the reward (whether it’s financial or otherwise) is lost in the complexity. For example if your employees are:

  • Do something no one’s ever done before
  • Solving a non-obvious problem
  • Have a long time-frame to work with or don’t fully know the answer to the question asked

When it comes to pushing a company forward, these types of tasks constitute the majority of the work. Companies need to innovate and create to get ahead and stay ahead. And Pink believes that’s one of the reasons why this doesn’t work anymore.

Conceptual and creative work requires a more expansive view. As Pink says, “if-then” motivation was great for 19th-century work, not so bad the 20th-century work but it’s now run out of steam.

2. Breaking the laws of fairness

Before we return to our point of autonomy, there’s another aspect cover.

Pink believes that human beings are “exquisitely in tune with the law of fairness” and that if you violate that law, you’re in trouble and so is your employees’ engagement levels.

The most obvious example is when it comes to monetary compensation. You need to pay people who do very similar jobs, very similar amounts of money. As soon as you pay in disproportionate quantities, motivation evaporates due to the laws of fairness being broken.

Furthermore, you must pay people a fair amount for the job they’re doing.

When you do, the issue of money is taken off the table. Employees aren’t focused on the money because they know it’s a fair wage. And once you do that, people’s attention instead gets refocused on the work.

And once that happens, the enduring motivator of autonomy becomes possible.

3. Time to encourage autonomy

So, you need to stop using “if-then” motivation for long time tasks and encourage an environment of fairness.

Now, let’s get back to autonomy and our problem of technology. We mentioned it might not be the kind of technology do expect and that’s because management is the technology in question.

Pink states that it’s a technology that dates back to the 1850’s and is one that we take far too seriously. It’s a technology designed to get compliance and not a technology that’s designed to improve employee engagement.

What employees need to be engaged is self-direction.

Quote image from Daniel Pink says: “If employees aretruly engaged in something, theyget there under their own steam. Not because management bullied them into compliance."

In one lecture, Pink gives three quantifiable and very different examples of this employee engagement principle in practice.

Example a)

Zappos is a shoe manufacturer operating out of Nevada in the US. It has a call centre which Pink describes as one of the “worst jobs” going due to the fact the industry boasts a 100% annual staff turnover rate. Zappos decided it would do things differently.

It would bring people onboard and give them a couple of weeks’ training. There would be no call recording, no call timing, no monitoring, no hamster-sized cubicle desks. The only thing they company would be especially diligent about is getting customer feedback and ensuring problems were properly solved.

Aside from that, staff could do whatever they wanted.

Zappos went from being in customer service no man’s land to having one of the highest customer service ratings in the entire country. And all because the staff got given space and a little autonomy.

Example b)

In another example, a supermarket started a system whereby it hired a new person for a 30-day trial period. But whether or not that person stayed or not was up to the rest of the team, thus giving employees responsibility over who stayed with them.

It’s another good example of giving people control and putting your trust in them, rather than controlling by compliance-enforced management.

Example c)

Finally, one Australian software company started a program to give employees 24 hours of free-rein each month to work on anything they wanted, provided it wasn’t related to their current daily responsibilities.

These so-called “FedEx days” (due to the fact that something must be delivered overnight in the time frame) led to:

  • A whole array of fixes for existing products
  • Ideas for new products
  • Improvements to internal processes that otherwise would not have existed

And it all came from undiluted, uncontrolled autonomy and putting some faith in the team.

The good thing about these examples is that they’re very different to one another. They show that you don’t necessarily need to do what Zappos did and give people complete carte blanche (although that is a good idea).

There’s plenty of room for creativity, as long as autonomy is at the root of whatever strategy you decide on and employees are treated with the trust and expectation that good things will be produced.

You’ve got to try this…

You’re doing your business a serious disservice if you don’t take note of this research and at least try some different approaches and see what kind of outcomes a little autonomy can generate your business. You can see a full TED Talk on the subject here:

Got questions or comments on how to improve employee engagement with autonomy? We’d love to hear from you below.

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Robin Dominik Havre

Robin is the CEO of New Intranet. He's helped many companies deploy successful mobile intranets that are easy to use and specially designed for employees not working in front of a computer. The goal of this blog is to provide research-backed intranet and internal communications advice for more successful HR strategies.

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