Beware of Cobra Farms – Three Tips on Employee Engagement

October 11, 2019 | ABI writes Rowena Crosbie, President, Tero International,

Carrots and sticks. Incentives and penalties. These are common tools for employee engagement. During my ABI Taking Care of Business Conference keynote, I cautioned how good intentions can backfire. Consider this story from the book Primed to Perform by McGregor and Doshi.

When India was a British colony, cobras were plentiful and a problem. The government put a bounty on dead cobras. With compensation for dead cobras came the innovation of cobra farms. When the leaders realized what was happening, they removed the bounty. What did the farmers do with the cobras when the bounty was lifted? They released them.

After I shared this story at the ABI Conference, a leader there confessed to leaving the door to her childhood home open to entice flies into the house. Why? Her parents paid her a few cents for each fly she swatted.

We’ve all seen examples of cobra farms in the workplace. Incentives or quotas frequently result in goals achieved at the expense of ethics, values and customer interests.

Instead of relying on external motivators, look for opportunities to tap inner motivation. Here are the top three:

  • Play: Find out what people love to do. Working for the enjoyment of the work itself, leads to the highest levels of engagement.
  • Purpose: This motive is at work when people see how the impact of their work matters.
  • Potential: When the work leads to other goals. Stepping-stone jobs are examples.

Beware of cobra farms.