Observation, attention and focused incentives can drive improved organizational results
Caleb was a surprise. My husband and I—serial animal rescuers—had just two elderly dogs left. We had talked about possibly taking a break from dog ownership once they passed. We thought, “Why not take a little time off?”
That all changed when I found Caleb running around a main road a couple of blocks from our house. This was dangerous, so I picked him up and put him in the car. He settled right in with me, as if he knew me already.
We found out he was already in foster care. The rescue that placed him there sent someone to pick him up, but by the time she got to our house, he’d met our other dogs and sniffed around the cats. And I was hooked. After someback and forth with the rescue group—and three long days waiting to get him back—he came home to us permanently.
Caleb is a mystery to everyone. He’s a Bichpoo—a mix between a Bichon Frise and a Toy or Miniature poodle—which is a relatively new breed that’s quite popular with families with children. He had a microchip, so someone must have loved him very much at some point. Apparently these owners moved away and never updated the chip. We suspect that he may have run off and they gave up looking for him, and then later they moved away.
We know exactly when he was born, because the veterinarian listed on the microchip still had his file. But there was a five-year gap in data. When found by the rescue, Caleb was a mess. At eight pounds, he was only two-thirds the weight he should have been. His coat was matted, he was nearly blinded by all the hair, and he was very sick.
It’s not an understatement to say Caleb was very lucky to be alive, surviving on his own in the outdoors.
Once cleaned up and neutered, he went into foster care and later—on that lucky day—we found him. Slowly, as we spent time with Caleb, we saw little hints of what his life might have been like. Loud noises caused scampering. He was terrified of the dark at first. And he became quite the expert at finding the little nooks and crannies in our house to hide himself.
But he’s a real lap dog, as he was bred to be. If you are at home, he is on, near, over, under, beside, or with you. And he’s super smart, learning quickly what we want and what our commands mean to him. We’re experienced owners and we know what to do in these cases, so he’s lucky (again) that I’d been on my way home that day. Somehow, I think he knows this and he learned to trust us.
Observe and learn
Many times as leaders, we don’t really know what our employees or other followers have been through in their lives. Their reactions to our leadership may be different than we expect, because of their life experiences. It is our job to adjust our style and our reactions to their needs. We have to be the chameleons.
Over time, we can glean glimpses into their lives and they can learn to trust us. This is a very important point. You cannot rush this. No amount of process, procedure, manuals, training, or money can change the past for our people. They are human beings who, like Caleb, have learned somehow to survive. Take the time to get to know them.
Some questions are inappropriate to ask, of course. The more you share your stories, though, the more they will voluntarily share theirs. You may be surprised at what you learn. Of course, you cannot take on the role of counselor. Be consistent in your approach, and be patient.
Simple kindness goes a long way. Ask your people how they are doing on a regular basis. Pay attention to details of their lives that you hear in discussions around the office, and then follow up. If there is a new grandchild, ask to see pictures. If a daughter is getting married, find out about the wedding and send a gift.
If a husband is in surgery or ill, insist the employee take the day or the week off, even if they don’t have the time accrued. They aren’t going to be productive anyway, and you can’t buy that loyalty. The precedent you set won’t hurt; in fact, when others see this, you build their loyalty, too. If someone abuses this, you can manage that, as well.
Engage and act
Experience with Caleb also teaches us that regular maintenance is important. A Bichpoo—or Poochon, as they sometimes are called—is a breed that needs regular grooming. Texas summers are hot, so his cute, curly hair needs to be managed and his eyes need to be kept clear. Of course, he has no way to do this himself, and nature provides no solution at all. He was bred for this level of grooming and dependence, so Caleb will always have to rely 100% on human intervention for his maintenance and care.
So do your charges! They need you 100% of the time for maintaining their attitude, their trust, and their performance. Do not confuse this with micromanagement. We’re talking about maintenance, not looking over your employees’ shoulders all the time. This is about maintenance of their trust in you, their leader.
Every single person is a completely unique entity. To really inspire their performance, you have to know them personally.
This is a very individual process. It’s okay to study generations, cultures, demographics of various groups, and classes of humans, and apply what you can when it works. But every single person is a completely unique entity. To really inspire their performance, you have to know them personally, and act or react accordingly when you are trying to bring out their best.
Caleb’s reactions to various commands are motivated by completely different things than our other dogs. For example, the first thing we figured out with his training is that “stay” was familiar, and he does it pretty well. Jazz, a Border Collie mix we rescued and loved for nine years before finding Caleb, was great with “sit.” Caleb? Not so much. Only dried chicken strips and some serious persistence helped him understand that word.
What works with one employee may not work with another—ever. They maybe trying hard and doing their absolute best to understand, but you may not be speaking their language.
The slats in the fence were so far apart that Caleb didn’t see them as a barrier, just a small door to walk through. We learned this the hard way; he got out of our yard twice before we finished adding the smaller wire around the bottom. His intent wasn’t really to leave home. But we didn’t provide the right message to him about his boundaries with that wide-open fencing.
The individualized approach applies to rewards as well. Don’t make the mistake of applying incentives based solely on how you’d like to be rewarded. Not only does a reward or incentive need to match the value of the work performed, it also needs to align with the needs or desires of those you want to earn it!
If you are trying to reward someone with money, but what they really want is more time with family, you are missing the boat. One dog in my house wants a pat on the head, and another wants a slice of cheese. I know it’s a weird comparison, but it’s real for us humans, too.
There is a famous cosmetics company that provides a great illustration of this. It offers money, cars, jewelry, trips, and even ball gowns or luggage as ways to reward their folks. One pharmaceutical company gives out a catalog with hundreds of items and employees earn points that they can use to select goodies ranging from candy to cars.
You can do this in many ways yourself. Small businesses can buy into a points catalog, too, or can keep it simple—offering time off, movie tickets, longer lunches, or gift certificates to choice restaurants or local attractions. Individualizing your rewards programs takes time, but it works.
Just like Caleb can have more fun and looks so much better with regular trimming, and just like he needs different cues about how to behave, your efforts to personalize the understanding, care and motivation of your team members will pay off, and in the end, everyone wins.
Lisa Harrington is executive vice president and chief marketing officer at IRMI. She is the author of Taking in Strays: Leadership Lessons from Unexpected Places, from which this article was adapted. Connect with Lisa on LinkedIn or email her at lisa.h@IRMI.com.