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An Employee Engagement Nightmare

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You know the guy that is late all the time? Depending on how you respond to bad behavior, you may just find yourself in an employee engagement nightmare.

That’s the story shared by Emily Tisdale in a blog post called Wake-Up Calls & Lattes: An Employee Engagement Nightmare. She tells the story of Tony, an employee at her first job who was never on time to work. Emily was his supervisor.

I knew exactly what to do. I just needed to sit down with Tony, one-on-one, and tell him to come to work on time. After all, he seemed like a reasonable person. He would understand that his consistent tardiness affected not only our patients, but also the rest of our team. Surely, a quick chat would be enough to solve this issue.

But it wasn’t.

And despite speaking with Tony multiple times, we soon found ourselves on the performance-improvement path. I shared the challenges with my supervisors and asked for their advice. What, I asked, could I do next?

“Well, why don’t you give him a wake-up call every morning so he doesn’t oversleep?” suggested the CEO.

“That would be nice, huh?” I chuckled, thinking he was kidding.

“And then maybe give him a latte from the café when he gets in. Motivate him to come in on time!” the COO added.


© Flickr user Dan Lacher

This is, of course, a terrible idea. Getting someone a gift to encourage them to change their behavior or coddling them with an early morning phone call isn’t employee engagement. It’s enabling.

There are plenty of downsides to rewarding bad behavior, and Tisdale mentions some in her blog post.

Rewarding Bad Behavior Gets You More Bad Behavior

If you have ever had a dog or a child, you know that if you respond to their whining by giving them what they want, you will only get more whining. No matter what the behavior, positive reinforcement always creates more of that behavior.

That doesn’t mean you should do the opposite—which is negative reinforcement. More on that in a minute. But if someone is doing something you don’t want, never try to help them by simply enabling them.

Also: once you start to reward bad behavior, you communicate to others that they should start doing the same thing in order to receive the same reward!

Problem-Focused Thinking Ignores Non-Problems

In most any other context, problem-focused thinking is an effective strategy for improvement. If you’re trying to figure out how to grow sales, develop new products, or improve your personal relationships, you may find benefit in looking at the issues to see what’s wrong. And in general, we don’t worry about things until they break.

But with groups of people, spending your time dealing with the “problems” is demoralizing. It makes those people feel bad and at the same time tells everyone else that you are just waiting for them to screw up!

Instead, engage with everyone.

Rewards are a Bad Idea

If positive reinforcement for bad behavior is off the table, what about positive reinforcement for good actions? It turns out that many kinds of incentives don’t have their intended effect. This is one of those head-scratching suggestions that you may want to read again.

The studies are clear: paying people for performance does not work. If you want to motivate individuals on your team to do something specific, follow these steps: find out what motivates them, describe why what you want is valuable, and tie it to whatever drives them.

Alarm Clock

© Flickr user Clint Gardner

So how did the story end with “Tony?” Emily Tisdale wraps up with:

When someone like Tony (who admitted to being late simply because he didn’t like getting up early) gets special treatment, it sends a strong, negative message to all of your employees.

Long story short, that position wasn’t a good fit for me for many reasons. But, frustrating as the experience was, it helped cement my management philosophy…Celebrate your good employees and never, ever take them for granted.

Wise words indeed!

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 1 day ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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