Want Employees Who Are Married to Your Company? Well...engage them first!


Recruiting good people into your team is just the first talent management hurdle that you have to cross as a startup entrepreneur. After this comes the Herculean task of motivating and retaining your team. If you thought that this is just about keeping employees ‘satisfied’ then you have a lot to think about. HR experts today talk about engagement as a much larger concept than satisfaction or retention. Engagement brings together three vital aspects:

  • Retention: Will your employees stay in your company?
  • Advocacy: Will they speak positively about your company and encourage others to join?
  • Motivation: Will they put in additional effort to help your company succeed?

Even among companies that understand and track engagement, the typical approach is to correlate this with satisfaction on parameters like pay, work tasks, teamwork, communication, learning opportunities etc. It is true that engagement is impacted by each of these factors. However, analyzing engagement basis just these factors is like a doctor diagnosing an illness by just checking the patient’s temperature.

There is a need to look at the more fundamental psychological issues that affect engagement. Professors Nitin Nohria (currently the Dean of Harvard Business School) and Paul R Lawrence proposed an understanding of human behaviour through the four Drive Model in their book – ‘Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (2002).’ This was further contextualized to the work environment in the HBR paper – ‘Employee Motivation: A Powerful New Model (2008).’ As per this, human behaviour stems from the extent to which four psychological drives are fulfilled:

  1. Acquire: Gain something that is scarce, whether tangible or intangible, monetary or non-monetary. In the context of work, it could be salary, recognition etc.
  2. Bond: Form connections with others, be it other people, communities or institutions. In the context of work, it would be colleagues, professional networks & affiliations.
  3. Comprehend:  To makes sense of the world around us and contribute to it. In the context of work, it would translate to doing challenging work, make meaningful contributions and learn.
  4. Defend: To protect against external threats and injustice. In the context of work, it translates to job security, fairness and concern for employee well-being.

Global HR Consulting firms like Mercer Consulting and the Lantern Group are already using this model to consult with their corporate clients on employee engagement. Here are some ways in which startups can leverage the understanding of the four drives to get the best out of their teams:

Communicate, communicate, and communicate:

The biggest advantage that small startup teams have over large corporates is the small team size. This makes it easier to drive company-wide communication. Weekly, if not daily team huddles are an absolute must. Sharing the news about even small wins – be it a new client, a great media mention or even an awesome client testimonial – will do wonders. Inducing positive sentiments around the company’s success will create a line of sight towards fame and wealth. It will also reinforce the sense of job security and career stability. Celebrating success together will increase team bonding. And seeing efforts succeed will give the feeling of having contributed.

Create a unified vision:

New businesses start up with their founders’ vision. But as the team grows, this vision needs to become something that is shared by the entire team. Not only do you need to frequently reinforce the vision through active communication but also involve the team in refining it. This will create a joint ownership for the vision and directly impact the sense of belonging, through a common purpose. It will also reinforce the feeling of changing the world and making a contribution.

Recognize and appreciate:

Focusing on pay to attract, retain or motivate talent is not recommended as it makes the employment relationship transactional. Moreover, early stage startups seldom have deep pockets to pay high salaries, making them susceptible to under fulfilment of the drive to acquire. Hence, it becomes even more important for you to use non-monetary rewards, the most effective of which is recognition. While appreciating employees, ensure that you highlight the significance of what they did. This will reinforce those behaviours among your team and also create the feeling of contribution. Given that the founders typically get the spotlight, promoting your employees to the outside world is also a great way of making them feel recognized.

Demonstrate empathy and concern:

Startup founders get to work very closely with their teams. This creates a personal equation over and above the professional relationship. The truest test of this relationship comes when the employee is facing a personal problem. It could be bereavement, someone falling ill, financial issue or anything else. You must empathise fully with the employee and go out of your way to help. Show that no matter what happens, you are there for the employee. Even in the corporate world, most employees when talking about their favourite managers mention how the manager helped them in their time of need. I would even highly recommend buying an insurance policy as the first vital part of your company’s benefits package to show that employee wellbeing is of paramount importance.

Note that each of the things mentioned above will impact multiple drives. That said, the drives are independent of each other. Under fulfilment of any one drive may lead to disengagement. As an entrepreneur, there is a limit to how much you can do with your time. So if you have to pick just three things to focus on, my recommendation is to communicate, communicate and communicate.

The author can be reached at saurabh@yourstory.in.


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