Chester Elton believes that business owners stand to learn a lot about employee engagement from the 19th Century French tightrope walker Charles Blondin.
Addressing attendees at Inc.'s Leadership Forum on Wednesday, Elton, co-author of the book All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results, recounted the story of how Blondin, already famous for being the first tightrope walker to cross Niagara Falls, once asked a roaring crowd of fans if they believed he could cross the Falls again. They all said they did. Then, Blondin asked who believed he could cross the Falls with a wheelbarrow. Again, the crowd declared they believed. Finally, Blondin asked the crowd of supposed believers who among them would ride in the wheelbarrow as he crossed the Falls. Suddenly, the crowd fell silent.
The moral of the story? "There's a difference between saying you believe and getting in the wheelbarrow," Elton said.
Elton, who studied hundreds of thousands of businesses while reseaching his book, says that one thing all succcessful businesses share is employees who are true believers in the company's mission. Elton told story after story of employees who deeply believed in--and were actively part of solidifying--their company's culture. There was the Hard Rock Cafe waitress who joined right in when a customer started dancing on a table in the restaurant. There was the Apple employee who, after accidentally dropping a customer's already broken iPod on the ground, replaced it with a working iPod at no extra charge. And then there was the Avis rental car agent, who kept the airport location open an extra 45 minutes to wait for a customer whose flight was delayed.
"When people truly understand and believe in why they do what they do, they do it better," Elton said.
According to Elton, the key to attracting and keeping employees who are equally engaged and feel equally empowered is praising them. Managers are all too quick to focus on what went wrong, but Elton says, it's far more important to emphasize what's going right.
Here are Elton's four rules for showing appreciation effectively:
Do it now: "Don't wait," he said. "The message that sends is it's important, because when something's important, you do it right away. "
Do it often: The way Elton sees it, business owners should thank their employees as often as they tell their spouses or children that they love them. "'I love you' in your personal life translates to 'thank you' in the work place," Elton explained.
Be specific: "'Great job' doesn't mean anything," he said. "It needs to be, 'Great job, because.'"
Be sincere: Make sure you're thanking your employee in a way that's meaningful to her or him, specifically. "For instance, family's the most important thing to me. If you're going to do something great for me do something great for my familiy," Elton said. "It shows you know me well."