Motivation and Engagement: Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Frustrated Parson Jack Russell terrier barking up the wrong tree?My dog Sophie loves to chase squirrels. She is the living embodiment of the aphorism: barking up the wrong tree. When she pursues her grey quarry, the furry bugger escapes by climbing up the nearest tree. Sophie will then patiently wait at its base while the squirrel aerially leaps from tree to tree then descends into a neighbor’s yard. Sophie will stare up the tree for hours, assuming what goes up will surely come down the same tree.

I see this same misguided effort when viewing business bromides on employee motivation. Business leaders attempt to increase employee motivation by having events, awards, and celebrations, by doing stuff. Rather than hold events, leaders would be much better served by looking at how the work is being done. I touched on this concept when I wrote about three current thinkers on motivation in my February 2012 newsletter.

The newest addition to my motivation and engagement library is a book by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer called The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. The book is based on a simple yet elegant research methodology. Amabile and Kramer had employees from 7 companies keep a daily diary on their impressions of their day, specifically writing about one event that stood out in their mind. The diaries were kept for many months, resulting in narratives from 12,000 days, a rich repository of what helped and what hurt motivation and engagement.

The main premise of their work is the concept that “small wins” or the perception that we are making incremental progress at work has a profound positive effect on motivation. This concept is not new; how many of us successfully lost weight by focus in on a few pounds a week rather than the venire big target number. Time management gurus have taught forever about breaking big projects into smaller tasks to avoid procrastination. Yet this simple shift of focus seems to have eluded the executive suite where attention is placed on the big win rather than the slow and steady incremental progress.

So let’s stop barking up the tree of motivation events. The engagement squirrel is not coming down any time soon. Let’s simply realign our focus away from mega annual objectives to more meaningful and motivating daily achievements. Or as my good colleague Bob Corlett wrote in his Washington Business Journal article on employee engagement, Don’t believe engagement projects are the path to success. Manage your people well, but chase victory. Engagement will likely follow.