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October 13, 2009

Employee Nip

Blog cartoon 10-14-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

I've talked a lot about my cat Miss Minnie on this blog because her life reminds me of corporate employees. While it's true she's furrier than most corporate workers, and has better night vision than most of them, she, too, needs stimulation to remain engaged as a pet. And, before you get insulted, I do think the word "pet" also applies to corporate employees.

These workers' companies are not their "master," technically speaking, and most don't labor under lock and key (at least as far as the authorities know), but since most need to make a living in order to eat, pay their rent or mortgage, and find enjoyment in life, they may as well be on a leash and chain for all the control they have over their day-to-day environment. With that in mind, you can't blame your employees if they, like a pent-up house cat, get a little antsy and irritable at times.

My solution for Miss Minnie is cat nip, and lots of it (along with Gerber's chicken baby food—her favorite), so maybe what your employees need (what some entrepreneurial company will soon begin selling) is employee nip. The formula of the nip will vary depending on what you've noticed about each of your workers, but just as all cat nip is derived from the same plant, so, too, do the fundamental ingredients of employee engagement remain the same.

First, what's in it for your workers?  Do they believe they have opportunities for advancement?  Most significantly, do they feel they are being rewarded right now for their hard work?  Times are shaky and uncertain, if not downright financially bad, but as I like to continuously point out, there are non-monetary ways to reward workers. Would having a stellar, high-performing employee work from home every Friday be the end of the world?  Or would it be so bad to note to that person his incredible efforts, and let him know that as soon as/or if-ever his division is able to, he will be recognized with a promotion for his hard work and ingenuity? It's such a cliche it's become old-wives-tale-wisdom, but just hearing the recognition, and that the promotion wheels will be in motion as soon as possible, is a great help. "It's nice to hear," as Grandma would say.

It may be time for a Recessionary Recognition class to appear on your curriculum as a requirement for managers. Since the lessons it should encompass involve acquiring and exercising emotional intelligence, be sure to do this one in person. Some managers (shocking) are not the most sensitive people in the universe. So you need to give them clues about what to say and do to make high-performing employees feel appreciated enough to stay engaged. What would those conversations sound like to you?  What would be safe to say without getting your company into legal trouble, or falsely raising the hopes of workers?  There must be something you can say. At the very least, would it be advisable to have closed door sessions with top (albeit unrecognized) performers to tell them what a great job they're doing, and that the manager is well aware of the unfairness of the situation—that the company is in a place where it is unable to provide a promotion or monetary reward for the hard work?  From there, your managers could ask these employees other ways they would like to be recognized, whether it be through a more flexible schedule, or a few extra vacation days tacked on around the holidays (the office is so slow then, why not?).

If awarding additional schedule flexibility or time off makes you uncomfortable, the "nip" can come in the form of exciting new projects—the kind that earn rather than cost the company money. Just as cats enjoy chasing rats, your employees will enjoy chasing business-oriented rats (not to disparage your business associates). What I mean by that is the challenge of chasing a project that excites employees, including the challenge of doing it on a significantly, or altogether restrictive, budget will distract them enough to keep them motivated and interested in you.

Keeping them interested in you is the biggest problem. When top-notch workers put themselves out continuously, and are not recognized—or worse—treated the same as less top-notch workers, they eventually give up, and start ignoring you, or only paying attention to you enough to get their paycheck. In the world of felines, they make all sorts of lures to dangle overhead so the bored cats can bat at them until sufficiently amused. The best of these lures incorporate cat nip. First, you have to make sure, whether it's through work challenges, or opportunities to become stimulated by helping another employee through mentorship, that your employees have something to reach for, and second, it's best to ensure that all assignments—including those that are day-to-day rather than aspirational—incorporate some "nip," something that peaks their interest, or an opportunity to make it their own.

Now that you know about employee nip, all you need are those convenient little cardboard boxes with the holes to cart them around in.

What are you doing to keep your employees engaged?  Is there anything companies can do to hold workers' attention and stimulate their capacity to do a great job?


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