DickersonBakker Blog

How to Engage Your Employees Without Killing Their Spirit

There are some weird experiments in the psychology world.

Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier discovered the concept of “learned helplessness” through an electric shock experiment with dogs. In the first part of the experiment, they had two groups of dogs. The first group, when shocked, could stop it by pressing on a lever. The second group of dogs could not control the duration of the electric shock.

In the second part of the experiment, the dogs were put in a box with a low barrier. The dogs in the first group immediately escaped the shocks by jumping over to the other side. However, the second group, who was conditioned to endure the shocks, just laid down, even though they could easily escape¹.

This theory of “learned helplessness” has mostly been used in the area of psychology, but recently, people have been applying it to business as well. Author Marlene Chism, who wrote No-Drama Leadership, asserts that the lack of freewill and responsibility in the workplace has taught workers helplessness. These younger employees’ require constant hand-holding and show an incredible lack of initiative and independence. This makes for tired, micro-managing leaders.

The good news is that you can condition employees to be engaged; it just takes a little leadership. Here are some ways:

Asking versus Telling

Many use this as a positive discipline technique in parenting. Instead of telling your staffer what they need to do, ask them their plan for how they are going to get it done. For example, instead of “You need to get me those stats by the end of the day,” try “What is your plan to finish the stats by the end of the day?” This passes the responsibility onto the employee, and thus, ownership. Empowerment engages your employees.

Forget the Past

Mistakes your employees made in the past cannot be fixed, so constantly bringing up an event they have no power to change will only disempower them. Disempowerment leads to helplessness, and they won’t have any confidence to take the initiative in the future. Forget the past–fix the future.

Positive Optimism

You want to motivate forward, not backward. Instead of saying, “I just don’t want you to mess things up like you did with the last donor,” try “I think you can really connect with this donor and secure the gift we need.” Again, by “believing” in your employees, you’re trusting them with responsibility which promotes engagement. 

Sure, engaging your employees takes a lot of energy and coaching, but micro-managing takes a lot of energy as well! As the old saying goes, “Teach a man to fish . . .” If you teach your staff how to be independent, empowered workers, you’ll have a vibrant organization. If all you’re doing is hand-holding, you have a kindergarten class.

¹Cherry, K.A. (2005). Classical conditioning. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/a/classcond.htm

Don’t know where to start? Our team of consultants can provide leadership coaching to help you be the empowering, guiding leader your agency needs.  Contact us today.

Back to blog