Good Engagement Practices Are Simple and Trust Workers to Do Things Right

Yesterday, I wrote about the “obvious” management practices that are often overlooked.

Why does this happen? There are many reasons, but one not often considered is that “I was told not to.”

While perhaps not quite so explicit, this happens more often than we like to admit – usually out of a desire to improve the process. The result – making what should be simple, quite complex (like the children’s game Mouse Trap, which creates a Rube Goldberg complex approach to the simple process of catching a mouse).

Rules that stifle individual judgment

Adrian Ott explained this phenomenon well in a recent blog post at the Harvard Business Review, saying:

As psychologist Barry Schwartz has observed, many areas of life are increasingly bound up with rules that limit the ability of individuals to use judgment and make the best decision for the specific situation. … The blame lies with management that sets rigid rules and metrics that disable employee judgment and create so many approval hurdles for mundane decisions, that overworked employees say, ‘Why bother?’ …

As important as performance metrics are, problems arise when performance metrics become overly dominant as a managerial principle, as they are in too many organizations. Metrics earn an outsized role because managing by the numbers is easier than managing people. …

Yet customers need more judgment, not less, from the employees they come in contact with. When customers contact a call center, it’s because there is an exception within the existing process and they need judgment that only employees can provide.”

Ott is writing in response to the Delta Airline employees who required returning military service members to pay extra for their luggage. She could as well have been writing about a series of comments from customer service providers I recently read in which they described common practice of disconnecting or blindly transferring a call to another representative. Why? Because any call lasting more than two minutes resulted in disciplinary action for the rep.

Train employees — and trust them to do the right thing

Think of the multitude of dissatisfied customers created because of a metric misapplied. How much better (and proven to be more successful) is Zappos approach of two rules for customer service representatives:

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  1. Do whatever you think is right for the customer;
  2. When in doubt, refer to rule number 1.

How simple. Train your employees well, then trust them to do the right thing. Simplicity is the key in successful employee engagement as well. As Ron Thomas wrote recently here at TLNT:

What I have found is that small initiatives in each of these situations engage the employee base 100 percent. Whether it was part of a larger initiative or just a one-time event, these type initiatives are almost always successful. They are successful because they are simple.”

What engagement practices are overly complex in your organization? How could they be simplified for greater impact?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


4 Comments on “Good Engagement Practices Are Simple and Trust Workers to Do Things Right

  1. Hi Derek,

    You and all the others you’ve included here speak common sense that seems to be regularly overlooked and possibly even dismissed outright. The best solutions are often simple, clean, and easy. I think there is a perception that in order to progress and move to higher levels of success, we must also increase the complexity of what we do. This may be true with technologies, but not so with human beings. We are fairly predictable creatures who thrive on simplicity.

    1. Thanks for the insightful comment, Wendy, and I couldn’t agree more. I think the natural human inclination when something goes wrong is to explain more, add more “rules” and “processes,” and do anything else we can think of to “make it more clear.” Sadly, what we should be doing in many cases is simplifying what has already become too complex and confusing.

  2. You’re right-on, Derek. There’s one more thing I’ve found that relates directly to this: one of the keys to making people successful in their jobs is putting them in companies and positions where they fit with the culture. Different jobs require different behavioral traits – and whether or not employees possess these traits can have a huge impact on how they perform. See for more on this.

    1. Thanks for the link John, and you’re right. Hiring to the values is critical – but you can’t do it well (if at all) until those values are more than a plaque on a wall – until you know what those values look like in daily behaviors and traits/attributes in employees you hire.

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