I’ve cautioned people for years against making New Year’s resolutions. The whole mindset behind it sets people up for failure. It’s a classic example of what I call the “program trap” – a seductive snare that organizations get caught in when they implement one-off activities to try and fix systemic problems.
The diet trap
To underscore my point, I discovered some research years ago on what happens when people resolve to lose weight at the first of the year. The failure rate is astonishing – over 90%. What’s even more sobering is that within a year, more than half of the people in the study gained back MORE weight than they lost when they started the resolution. Bottom line, you can’t get there with a “diet and exercise program.” It requires SYSTEMIC changes in overall “lifestyle” – for a person or an organization – or else the likelihood of succeeding in making substantive, sustainable changes is extremely low. It can even make matters worse.
Why diets fail
I recently read a theory that explains, in part, why that happens. The brain area largely responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is located just behind the forehead. Scientists have discovered that it is in charge of keeping us focused and handling short-term memory. Asking it to “lose weight” is often asking it to do too much.
In one experiment conducted at Stanford University, several dozen students were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. The students with the seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as the students given two digits. The reason, they theorized, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain – they were a “cognitive load” – making it harder to resist a decadent dessert.
Bottom line, willpower by itself is so weak, all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain gets overtaxed and gives in to temptation. That’s why at the organizational level, improvement efforts require supportive operating systems and processes. Without that systemic support, people’s brains get overloaded, and they can’t sustain the change efforts.
Beware of icing without the cake
Here’s an analogy to illustrate that point. Most of the one-off activities and programmatic fixes that organizations engage in are basically the equivalent of “icing on the cake.” When it comes to employee engagement, focusing on the icing leads to shallow, short-lived niceties like pizza lunches, employee of the month awards, suggestion boxes, quarterly employee meetings, and so on. The icing can be nice, but it’s the cake that matters most.
So what does the employee engagement “cake” look like?
A solid foundation of values and vision grounded in a substantive, honest assessment of the gaps between where an organization or team stands currently versus where they want to be
Managers who have a deep understanding of the credibility factors that foster employee trust
Systems, processes and policies that do three main things: 1) Show employees in no uncertain terms that their well-being is the number one priority of the organization, 2) Align and equip employees with skills and knowledge and tools they need to succeed, 3) Support the known extra effort drivers of interesting work, feeling appreciated, and being in on information and decisions
Those three critical factors are essential for building trust, and when it comes to employee engagement, trust – the belief that people will do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time – matters most.
Watch this video to learn more about our approach to helping organizations align marketing communications and employee engagement. For more information, send us an e-mail or call us today at 314-664-6497.
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