BBC Capital

Leader Board

How to get the most mileage out of your employees

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

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Around the time a bald eagle turns 3-years-old, it will pick a mate. The new couple will build a nest together, watch over the eggs and hatchlings and hunt to feed their young. They might fly off separately after raising their offspring, but every year in mating season, they will meet back up to renew the relationship, like an old married couple returning to the place they went on their first date.

Sounds romantic, right? Actually, it’s just nature. There’s really no proof birds can express love or affection, said Dr Chris Bonar, director of animal heath at the Dallas Zoo.

“It could be seen as emotional attachment by humans, but for the animal it’s likely only about assuring the best chance of producing offspring,” Bonar said.

The ways monogamous animals work together toward a common goal offers a key lesson for managers. Knowing how to get employees to commit to a task might seem like a basic of management — and it is. But getting true commitment to a larger goal from a subordinate is among a leader’s biggest challenges. 

The commitment problem is particularly acute in the United States, in part because of the way people in the country measure the trait. For the most part, US corporate culture still values the number of hours spent at work. The guy whose office light is on latest is usually deemed to be the hardest worker, the most committed.  

“People equate commitment with face time,” said Scott DeRue, assistant professor at University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “But organisations ought to judge not by how much time in the office, but how much is achieved.”

Lawyers just might have it the worst. Attorneys average 2,000 a year, or 38.5 hours per week, according to a 2010 survey by the National Association for Legal Career Professionals. Those are just billable hours working for clients, meaning many big firm attorneys work six or seven long days a week to bill that many hours. 

Others see sacrificing sleep as the ultimate work commitment. DeRue, who worked in investment banking before teaching, often saw his banking colleagues sacrificing weekends and sleep, to show more dedication to the job than the next guy.

The better measure

How bad is all this overworking? Sleep deprivation costs American businesses $63 billion a year, according to a Harvard University study released last year.

Clearly, managers could learn something about expectations they should have for employees — and the commitment that comes with them — from eagles, which fly in with clear goals, meet responsibilities on tight deadlines and then take a hiatus until the next big go-round.

A 2006 internal study by Ernst & Young found that employees who took longer vacations at the accounting firm scored better on yearly performance ratings.  Europeans work, on average, 15 to 20% fewer hours each year than Americans. And while the US has no law regulating the length of the workweek, more than 130 nations do. 

Management consultant Brian Kight said the way to both gauge and improve commitment is simple: setting goals for your employees. Kight is managing director of Focus3, a company that recently earned headlines for offering management consulting to players and coaches for the Ohio State University football team, among the most successful college teams, with seven national championships. Kight gives all of his clients, whether linebackers or middle managers, a rundown of how to set goals.

“An employee can’t commit to a fuzzy goal,” Kight said. “It’s the job of a manager to make sure an employee has a clear idea of the objectives.”

First, a good employee has to be committed to outcomes the company is trying to achieve. Then employees can — and must — commit to the outcomes expected of their specific position. And finally, each person must set personal outcomes, goals they’d like to achieve for themselves; these are goals that may not be among the employer’s goals but are important to the employee.

Nailing all three objectives simultaneously, Kight said, results in a committed employee — but not necessarily one who is last to leave the parking lot each night.

Getting it right

Few companies do this well, because few of their managers talk about achieving goals as a way to show devotion to the job, Kight said. The few that do breed more loyal and productive workers who are more likely to hit goals, Kight said.  

Ritz-Carlton Hotels, for instance, uses a simple system called line-ups. The hotel chain requires all employees, at every level of the company, to get in line each morning to tell inspiring stories about accomplishments from the day before or to make pledges to a new goal. That’s 40,000 Ritz employees around the world, every day, said Diana Oreck, vice president of the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

What’s brilliant about the Ritz example, Kight said, is that the hotel chain uses the line-ups to give real life examples of goal setting. It is one thing for a manger to repeat the corporate credo (“The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission”), and it’s another for a manager to ask a bellman to describe during the line-up how he achieved it just yesterday.

At Southwest Airlines, the US discount carrier known for its open seating and fun-loving flight attendants, managers historically have generated 10 times the revenue of executives at other airlines, according to one estimate, despite the fact that they are expected to oversee far more employees than their counterparts. One driver, say experts: getting employees commited to corporate and personal professional goals.

Giving employees good goals is actually a better bet on fostering commitment than the promise of raises. In surveys conducted by university researchers going back to the 1950s, workers indicate they’re more likely to be committed to a manager or a company if they are trusted with tasks.

Of course, a few extra luxuries don’t hurt either, said DeRue.

“Nobody ever asks why Google provides all those luxuries it does,” DeRue said. The “Googleplex” headquarters in Mountain View, California, features swimming pools, a sand volleyball court, and 18 gourmet — and free — cafeterias. “They don’t want their people to leave, and when you spoil them a little, you will get that kind of commitment.”

The way, then, to develop committed employees isn’t so different than what drives bald eagles to monogamy: shared, clear goals and reasonable working hours. And it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a swimming pool.