Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Pole Vaulters, Boy Racers, Plodders and Flatliners: Tips on employee engagement

(This article isn't just a gratuitous excuse to include a picture of Russian Pole Vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva. Honestly.)

In an entertaining and enlightening article in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, Katie Truss (former Director of the Centre for Research in Employment, Skills, and Society at Kingston Business School) and her fellow researchers suggest a novel approach for tailoring engagement programmes to meet the needs of different types of workers.

The article first looks at the five basic principles for increasing employee engagement:
  • Keep people informed
  • Listen
  • Set clear objectives
  • Match the person with the job
  • Create meaningful work 
Nothing particularly earth-shattering there.

But the article then goes on to demonstrate that the one-size-fits-all approach to engagement is inevitably destined for failure, and classifies workers into four distinct categories. It’s argued that if you know which type of people you’re dealing with, you’ll be able to produce more engaged employees, who in turn perform better, are more loyal, take less sick leave, are less likely to quit, and enjoy better health and personal well-being.

See if you recognise either yourself or your colleagues in the list below

Grand Prix Drivers
Generally strongly engaged with their work, they’re ideal employees much of the time, but also at risk of burning out.
The Challenge: Preventing them from carrying too much of the load, especially in projects which they’ve initiated themselves

Pole Vaulters
They’re strongly engaged, but their moments of engagement are less frequent than those of Grand Prix Drivers. Pole Vaulters tend to be energized only by certain aspects of their work rather than the whole range of required activities.
The Challenge: Getting the most out of their on/off enthusiasm.

Long-Distance Runners
On the upside, they’re reliable and consistent, but they’re also significantly less engaged than Grand Prix Drivers and Pole Vaulters (assuming the Pole Vaulters are actually engaged)!
The Challenge: Keeping them involved, and increasing their levels of engagement.

Oh dear. These guys are rarely engaged and even when they are, it doesn't actually amount to much.They can easily become actively disengagde (i.e. become negative and hostile) and have a demotivating effect on colleagues.
The Challenge: Reversing their negative feelings and fostering engagement.

Confession time? Which category do you consider yourself to be in?

Harvard Business Review (March 2010) Engaging the “Pole Vaulters” on Your Staff


  1. Think there’s a big group of people that are not captured in the categories above. Not the best analogy but see if you can recognise anyone that might fit in this group, I certainly can:

    Tug of War Puller (or are they Tuggers? Not sure on the technicalities)
    Like the long distance runners they are reliable and consistent. However more often than not they are expending lots of energy just to stand still and sometimes they can be pulling in the wrong direction
    The Challenge: To make sure their effort is best placed and moving towards the organisations goals

    EBTG, Flatliner and proud of it (if I could be bothered that is)!

  2. EBTG: Thanks for your profound comment!

    To build upon it, there are usually two groups of people in a tug of war contest, and both are trying to win, and both also believe that they are pulling in the right direction. But one of them is wrong, and the only way for collective success is for one group to let go!