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How to: Get better employee engagement

Using cheese (yes, that's right, cheese)

Thrive Learning - Bertie the hound2

Meet Bertie.

Bertie is my 14 week-old Springer Spaniel cross Boston Terrier puppy. Like most puppies he; thinks your favourite shoes are the tastiest things EVER, pays homage to your guests by peeing on them – just a civilised excitement wee – and is very strict at keeping his 4pm appointment every day to go absolutely insane for 10 minutes before collapsing in a pile of fur and cuteness. While being simultaneously adorable and exhausting, after about the 5th pair of shoes (you know, the fancy ones we really really loved), most people decide that a spot of training is in order. ‘To YouTube!’

Our training with Bertie started pretty well. He learnt all the classics – sit, lie down, paw (regret teaching him that one actually…if you’re a dog owner you’ll know why.) We were super proud parents and it looked as though this was going to be a breeze. Then…we went to the park.

Turns out, Bertie can indeed sit, lie down and do a plethora of tricks to perfection at home, but put him in a park with 100 different smells, 20 other dogs and 50 new people to meet and he loses his tiny mind. All semblance of training goes out the window and he’s hot-footing it across the grass to introduce himself to a pigeon. Shout, scream, send up fireworks, he ain’t coming back. At that point in time, that pigeon is the most interesting thing on the face of the earth and we no longer exist.

Unless…you happen to have some cheese on you…

How to drive better employee engagement

Cheese is the answer. Cheese is the elixir of life. Cheese is what makes all things possible. It took us a few weeks to work out that cheese was Bertie’s Achilles heel, but once we did, boy did it work! He will do anything for cheese. He could be sandwiched between a squirrel and his best friend, Reggie, with a steak in front of him and he would still come back for cheese. This got me thinking, reward-based training really does work and in my quest to train Bertie, I started to read more and more articles about it.

At about the same time as this, I was scoping the Rewards feature for Thrive’s Learning Experience Platform and as a result, I was doing a lot of research in this area. I found there was an awful lot of cross-over between my human-centric research and my puppy research and then one day I came across a top ten advice list on PDSA which made me realise – this is the same audience! Rewards may be different (unless your learners are also unnecessarily enthusiastic about cheese) but the way to drive changes in behaviour are exactly the same.

I’ve included the advice list below, with pretty much the same headings as on the PDSA site, but I think it still speaks to how we should approach rewarding our learners to help achieve better engagement. Or indeed why we should be doing it if we’re not.

1. Know what makes your learners tick!

I once had a colleague say to me that they “wanted learning to be the reward.” Ludicrous! Ain’t no engagement happening there! And that’s not because people don’t want to learn, or aren’t rewarded by learning itself. It’s because they’re standing in the middle of our metaphorical park with a multitude of metaphorical pigeons and their brains won’t let them prioritise something like learning which, let’s face it, is not often positioned as critical. Learning is the equivalent of me, just standing quietly and waiting for Bertie to come back. He knows I’ll be there when he wants me, he can take his sweet time. There’s no incentive for him to come back, and there’s equally no incentive for your people to learn.

Unless…you have cheese. If we pair learning with something people want (their version of cheese), suddenly it starts moving up the to-do list. The one condition is that it absolutely has to be something people want and the problem is, people want different things. As do puppies – some puppies simply aren’t food driven, but give them a tickle or their favourite toy and they’re yours. This makes it even more important for us, as L&D, to work out what makes our learners tick. Here are some common ways people like to be rewarded:

  • Healthy competition – some people are simply driven by beating their teammates. This is particularly prominent in teams where competition is part of their day-to-day, commonly found in sales.
  • Genuine appreciation – global studies reveal that 79% of people who quit their jobs cite ‘lack of appreciation’ as their reason for leaving. Some of us are hard-wired to help people and the best reward is receiving genuine gratitude.
  • Moment in the spotlight – a more public version of appreciation, shining a light on someone and holding them up as a great example is something lots of people crave.
  • Collecting for collecting-sake – remember collecting football cards as a kid? The need to collect is ingrained within many of us, whether it be for the thrill of the hunt or to relive childhood memories.
  • Trust – very simple and often overlooked. Simply giving them your trust. This provides people with a huge self-esteem boost and will motivate them to continue whatever behaviour you’re rewarding.
  • Good, old-fashioned, stuff – if we’re truly honest with ourselves, this one generally works for all of us. We like shiny things and don’t mind being bribed occasionally.

2. Timing is everything

With each technological advancement, instant gratification is becoming more and more important. 45% millennials cite they are more impatient today than they were 5 years ago and this still sits at 40% for over 55s [Instant Gratification Nation]. This is entirely applicable to how we reward our employees. According to a study by York College, ‘millennials require instant reward and recognition’. Show them appreciation a week after doing something and they will have forgotten exactly what it is they did. If we want to embed the best behaviours, we need instant rewards.

3. Keep it short

Don’t make training sessions too long or your learners will lose interest or get frustrated. See, kept this short for you for exactly that reason.

4. Clear commands

Make sure your learners know what they’re being rewarded for and why. This is where systems which are based purely on gamification get it really wrong. Learners are awarded a bunch of what seems random points with no clue why they’re receiving them. This is much like me throwing handfuls of kibble at Bertie’s face at random points in the day. It’s not helpful. We need to reward people in the right way, at the right time and let them know why they’re being rewarded (so they can do it again!)

5. Keep going

Repetition is key to drive the behavioural change you want to see. We need to ensure we’re making positive associations to learning by providing continuous small rewards which the learner can rely on. If we’re inconsistent with our approach to this, learners will lose trust and disconnect. Continuous rewards also allows us to become a ‘source of good things’ and in turn allows us to build up a ‘love bank’. Once this bank is established, we can make withdrawals on the occasions we really need people to do things (e.g. compliance training) and you’ll find people will be much more happy to oblige.

6. Ignore mistakes

In this context a ‘mistake’ would be considered as not engaging with learning. This is going to happen, particularly at first. The important thing is not to fight it. Don’t harass and crack down on those who don’t engage, just ignore them for now. Over time, the recognition and rewards you put in place will help increase employee engagement and when those people do start to engage, make sure you swoop in with a timely and appropriate reward.

7. Never use punishment

One of the most common reasons cited for people not engaging with learning and not spending time sharing their own knowledge is that they are concerned they’ll be accused of wasting time. If this is the case, it’s time for a cultural shift. If you genuinely want your employees to engage with learning and development, the culture needs to support it at all times, not just when it suits.

8. Get everyone on board

We’re trying to get Bertie to stop jumping up at the moment, by only rewarding him with affection when he’s calm and not springing around. We tend to go through a few weeks where this works great, then the grandparents come to visit and it all unravels. You must be consistent with your rewards and it must be supported by everyone. Even the CEO needs to do it.

56% of companies report that learning is still not a management priority and it’s not just at the senior level either – according to a poll by Right Management, 68% of employees said that their managers aren’t actively involved in their career development. Managers need to be on board, encouraging engagement and providing rewards where necessary. The same message needs to come from everyone or it all falls down.

9. Get them to eat the right treats

Ok, this part was about dog obesity which probably is irrelevant but come on, 8 out of 9! I mean, maybe don’t give away too many chocolate bars either…

So, how do you deliver the cheese?

Or bring home the bacon? Or something else snack related…?

Cheese delivery in learning (more commonly known as reward and recognition schemes) can be a real challenge to get right. As I said at the beginning of this article, I wrote this because I was researching for Thrive’s new Learner Experience Platform (LEP). And applying compelling, engaging R&R schemes which drive real culture changes in business is no mean feat. These considerations have been a core factor when deciding what our learning platform should include. So far we’ve got:

  • Reward people the way they like to be rewarded
  • Continuously reinforce specific behaviours you want to see
  • Ensure recognition is instant and intuitive
  • Engage managers with their team’s learning and rewards
  • Do all of this, without lifting a finger

What do you think is needed for rewards and recognition to be effective in learning environments? This is what I have taken from my research but I am really keen to hear what other people think.

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