Which comes first, Employee Engagement or Cooperation?

November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Which comes first, employee engagement or cooperation?  Employee engagement is a complex emotional response to a vast number of factors too numerous to mention here in this short blog. Because it is such a complex emotional condition that can vary from employee to employee, an effective strategy for leaders is to create the right environment and manage those factors that best facilitate its natural growth.

Just as a gardener would create the right conditions for a delicate orchid plant to produce its lovely flowers, it is useful to think of engagement as an outcome of just the right conditions and just the right love and tender care.

Following this logic, we might again ask which comes first employee engagement or cooperation?  Cooperation must come first.  Cooperation
is a condition in the environment that allows optimum productivity, achievement, and engagement.  This begs the question, “How do we create an environment that encourages cooperation?”  Do we just hire cooperative people or are there factors we can control in the environment?  Are there system factors we can create?

I walk my dogs twice a day.  During the winter I take them to the beach.  We have lovely beaches in Southwestern Connecticut.  Dogs are not allowed on the beach in summer.  It is a local ordinance.  It is a shame.  One reason for this is because cleanliness of the beach is compromised by those few owners who fail to clean up after their dogs.  Anyway, in the winter no one really bothers us and there are very few people who utilize the beach because the weather is very often unpleasant.

The other day while walking with the dogs on the beach I noticed an unusual accumulation of “dog dirt” in various places.  Irresponsible owners were walking their dogs and not cleaning up.  Having extra plastic bags with me I began picking up the “extra dirt.”  Needless to say this was an unpleasant job.  I began to get very angry.   Yet, I kept working to clean up.    I was willingly doing a task that was not my responsibility.  Why?  Why was I cooperating with people who were so irresponsible? Why was I so engaged in an unpleasant task?

According to the book “The Evolution of Cooperation” Robert Axelrod explains that there are three conditions that can create cooperation.  Two parties will cooperate naturally if, there is frequent expected future interactions, clearly understood benefits each party will enjoy if they cooperate, and clearly understand negative consequences if they fail to cooperate.

All three elements were in place for me and the dogs.  I wanted to use the beach frequently in the future.  The benefits of going to the beach with the dogs are numerous including the lovely scenery, an opportunity for the dogs to run free and get lots of exercise, a place to walk unencumbered by extra snow to name a few.  The consequences for not picking up the extra dirt (for not cooperating) is someone will complain, an Animal Enforcement Officer might be called in to inspect, I might get a ticket, and I will have to stop coming to the beach with the dogs.

As angry as I was with those irresponsible owners, I was willing to cooperate and clean up after them.  I had a bigger set of reasons to cooperate and my emotional reaction was overridden by other factors, i.e. the factors that create cooperation.

Leaders can do this in their teams.  The factors of cooperation are not enough to keep engagement going.  These are not the only factors that create “the right conditions for a delicate orchid plant to produce its lovely flowers.”  For example, in an organization I would expect to be able to influence the offenders to change their behaviors.  I would expect I would have an opportunity to communicate my anger and someone
would listen.

Without cooperation engagement is difficult to nurture.  If you are a leader keep in mind these factors when you see a lack of cooperation in your team. When anyone of these factors is missing there will be damage to the “delicate balance” that leads to the “delicate flower” of employee engagement.

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