This is model 2 in the pack of 6 that I have described. There is a book, or two, and it’s associated speeches /workshops/web sites, all under the title ‘Contended Cows still give better milk’. It’s a revised version of the previous book that did not contain the word ‘still’. OK. It’s a book about Employee Engagement. The book has also a place on some lists of books on Leadership Development. I don’t imagine it’s about the development of cows, but who knows?
Leaving the amusing concept and the marketing mind of the authors aside, (even leaving the book aside), conceptually, this model is alive and well although many people would prefer to avoid the bovine analogy. Beyond the cows, this is an input and output model. If we feed the cows (sorry) well enough, they will be happy (the reviews emphasise the differences between happy and contended, just in case you wanted to add some philosophical depth) and will deliver better milk. Simple. Find out what makes the cows happy and off we go. Flexible time, good pay and incentives, table tennis, good cafeteria (cows will deliver seriously worse milk if you keep those vending machines), working from home, dress-down Fridays, company barbeques, maternity leave and points to buy goods online. There are about 1000 other things. You won’t be short of food for ‘happiness’.
This model is that of a machine. Use good oil and you’ll see how well it works. We can make as much fun as we like (certainly I am very grateful to the authors for their imagination, and for many conversations in the corridor with clients when I mention this and they say: ‘Are you kidding?’ and a wonderful conversation starts. Thanks guys) but there is a whole Employee Engagement sub-industry that, while it may not use the bovine analogy, it uses the same principles. Words such as ‘employee satisfaction’, ‘happiness’ etc, belong here. The whole narrative of ‘going the extra mile’ (when more gas has been added) and ‘discretionary effort’, so intrinsic to traditional HR/Employee Engagement models, belongs here.
Pros. Well, the title is funny and you’ll remember the model.
Cons. Err, small detail, people are not machines, but, hey, we have been using machinery language for a long time.
So what? What is wrong with flexible time, good pay and incentives, table tennis, a good cafeteria, working from home etc? Absolutely nothing. The difference depends on how you treat these. Are they good on their own merit, contributing to the favourable environment, or are they cynical tools to feed the cows? If you knew that your cows (here we go again) are already happy, would you bother to add all these ‘benefits’?
Are you providing flexible time for young mothers because you think that young mothers need flexible time or because you have many young mothers (and fathers) employed and the increase of flexible time correlates with 2 points up in the Employee Engagement Survey?
PS. This model of Employee Engagement was first described as ‘Panem et Circenses’ in 100 A.D by Juvenal. Its translation is ‘Bread and Circuses’ and described how Roman Emperors kept the masses happy (sorry, contented) with entertainment and food. And the Roman masses could go the extra mile and provide discretionary effort. Well, at least until the Visigoths decided to visit.
Next is model 3, or ‘Cause’. And the key issue here is, are we talking about employee engagement with the company or within the company?
I think that this business about happy cows is attractive to people because, on some level, it is obviously true. The problem is that if the cows are fundamentally unhappy in their jobs, little fake things like free snacks and ping pong tables will probably just make things worse. Employees want to be part of a company with a mission — a mission that they understand, agree with, and want to contribute to. And they want to be genuinely valued and respected by management, all the way up and down the tree.
The rest just follows naturally. For example, flex-time is just a sign of respect for employees who have family issues or who don’t want to sit in rush-hour traffic. If some class of employees has to work on a more regular schedule, they should understand why. Trust the employees not to abuse this freedom unless proven otherwise. The same is true for the ability to go online sometimes — it’s just a convenience of modern life. If an employee meets or exceeds your expectations for results, it doesn’t matter if he or she does some shopping or plays an occasional game during working hours — some people work better in bursts. Just make sure that everyone understands the expectations, and if someone seems to be addicted to some unproductive behavior, talk with them.
As I mentioned in my response to the “vocation” post, in the research lab I ran for a while, we were lucky enough to have an organization where everyone was passionate about what we were doing, and where long-term performance was the only useful measure. So the expectation was that people should be around the office most afternoons to communicate, and the rest was up to them. They are all grown-ups and they all cared at least as much about the research as I did, and my bosses.
In this situation, it worked very well, and many of our researchers passed up more lucrative job offers because they were enjoying their work with us. After the first few hires, the researchers did most of our recruiting, not me. But we did have to cut loose one or two people who didn’t thrive in this kind of community and whose work was just not good enough. They were unhappy about that, but they understood. They got good jobs elsewhere and are still friends.
We moved into a fairly empty space and we (the first ten or so employees and I) got to design the work environment ourselves. After some discussion, we decided that the best plan for a research lab was to have small private offices with lots of comfortable common spaces.
We decided together that ping-pong and foosball would be too distracting, but that a pool table and dartboard would offer the right sort of non-frantic amusement. (Given the lack of athletic ability of most of the researchers, we went with the non-lethal, plastic-tipped darts.) These gaming areas were surrounded by whiteboards, so if a good idea came up while people were waiting around for their turn, they could follow up then and there. More than half of our patents were born on those whiteboards, though of course the grunt work to develop the ideas happened elsewhere.
So the point of all this: Cows are smart. If you want happy ones, worry about the big things that really matter and show them genuine respect. And the cows will be happier and more committed to the organization if you let them design the barn and choose the brand of fodder.