How to Build Employee Engagement

In Aesop’s fable, “The North Wind and the Sun,” two forces of nature demonstrate their very different styles of influence. In the story, the wind and the sun make a bet as to which of them can make a lone traveler take off his jacket. To demonstrate its strength, the wind blows and blows, but the man only grows colder and colder and pulls his coat tighter and a tighter around himself. Finally, angry and exhausted, the wind gives up and the man sits cold and shivering on the side of the road. After the sky clears, the sun comes out and gently shines on the man. As the day proceeds, the man slowly warms up and eventually takes off his jacket to enjoy the warmer weather and his surroundings.

Aesop’s fables may seem pretty removed from our modern life, but the lesson that persuasion is better than force can still teach us something about how we treat employees. For example, leaders sometimes see employee disengagement as a sign of laziness, apathy, or even insubordination – they view it as a bad habit that must be broken. Often, leaders don’t even consider what factors might be contributing to this disengagement. Rather, they resort to a forceful “command and control” response like the wind in Aesop’s fable, which is ineffective at provoking change. It may even cause employees to curl up and retreat further, which only increases their disengagement.

Given that our role as leaders is to make sure things get done, we want people to take off their coats and roll up their sleeves (so to speak) and get to work – however, we also hope they enjoy the process. As leaders, we can choose to use force, or we can use understanding and empathy to create a culture that is conducive to engagement.

In order to better understand employees and create engagement in the workplace, I’ve adapted a list from Ferdinand Fournier’s book, Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed To and What You Can do About It. The list consists of 16 reasons why employees don’t perform adequately, which I have modified as questions to encourage empathetic engagement, rather than immediately casting blame. So, the next time you encounter a disengaged employee, ask the following questions:

  1. Do they know why they should do it?
  2. Do they know how to do it?
  3. Do they know what they are supposed to do?
  4. Do they think your way will not work?
  5. Do they have a better way?
  6. Do they think something else is more important?
  7. Are there positive consequences for engagement?
  8. Do they already think they are doing enough, when in actuality they are not?
  9. Are they rewarded for their work?
  10. Are they punished for doing what they are supposed to do?
  11. Do they expect a negative consequence for engagement?
  12. Are there consequences for poor performance?
  13. Are there obstacles beyond their control?
  14. Are they personally capable of doing their work?
  15. Are there personal issues at play?
  16. Can the tasks actually be done?

Nobody I know likes to be told what to do – not the employees who work in our organization, not me, and certainly not my children! Think of your leadership style – are you persuasive like the sun, or forceful like the wind? If you lean towards the latter, consider asking yourself some of the questions above. You may be surprised at how effective a bit of understanding and positive persuasion can be.

Looking for more resources on this topic? Check out our other resources.


Wendy Loewen

Managing Director

Wendy is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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