Wag The Dog in HR

Paul Hebert Audacious Ideas, Employee Coaching, Employee Engagement, employee experience, Employee Relations, Employment Branding and Culture, Paul Hebert 5 Comments

As I think back on my career and recall the times I had the best work experiences—where I was connected and engaged the most—it almost always involved a crisis or a pressure-filled project. I can vividly remember working on a big Chrysler account or a huge GM Parts incentive program. We worked 24/7 for weeks. In one case, we slept in the office in order to meet deadlines. We visited the printer at 3:00 am to proof the printed pieces for the presentation while the first run was still on the roller because we didn’t want to waste the 4 hours until they could deliver the proof to the office. We were under tremendous pressure and we released that pressure the minute the job was done at a local tavern on the way to the employee parking garage.

We were a team with a mission.

A mission that required sacrifice and hardship.

And the funny part was that from then on, regardless of the situation, we were still a team. I’m still in contact with those people 20+ years later even though we work in different industries and in different places. Many of you with military experiences have similar feelings based on the team you were with during your tours of duty. Please don’t put words in my post—I’m not in any way drawing a parallel between military service and putting together a presentation for the suites at a major automotive manufacturer. You win that one, boys and girls. And, thank you.

Under Pressure Wag the Dog Style

The point I’m making is that many times (almost every time) a team under pressure to achieve a goal becomes a strong, connected, and engaged team.

So why not wag the dog to drive engagement?

Wag the Dog was a movie from 1997 about the President of the United States. After being caught in a scandalous situation days before the election, he manufactures a fake war in Albania which he can then win in hopes of driving his numbers up and ensuring his reelection. In other words, they created a fake situation to engage the population.

So I ask if putting people into high-pressure situations helps with employee engagement, should managers look for situations to amp up the heat to help the team coalesce and become more engaged? Should we subtly put more faux pressure on projects to help create more engaged teams?

Full disclosure: I’ve never done this myself, but I would think that having specific projects that new team members could participate in—designed to be pressure-filled and manic—might be a great training process to create connections early in a career.

What say you? Too much real work going on to manufacture projects? Or, even if you have real work that you can put a little extra zip on, do you think that duplicitous?

Just thinking out loud. Many of the toughest, most productive teams are those that have been through the mill and come out harder and faster. Pro sports teams, military teams, spelling bee teams…

Ask yourself… Would you wag the dog if you could?


Paul Hebert

Paul Hebert is Vice President of Individual Performance Strategy at Creative Group Inc, writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. He is dedicated to creating true emotional connections often overlooked in our automated, tech-enabled world. Using proven motivational theory, behavioral economics and social psychology he has driven extraordinary company performance for his clients. Paul is widely considered an expert on motivation, incentives, and engagement.

Comments 5

  1. I loved your article! It took me back to one of my early work experiences. We were a small consulting firm working for large companies on projects with State and federal regulatory implications. We were smart, but we lacked manpower.

    On occasion, we’d find ourselves on the edge of disaster trying to make a deadline. If we messed up, six- or seven-figure fines could be levied on our clients or, worse yet, agents could descend on their properties, shutting down their businesses. Yikes!

    Those all-hands-on-deck scenarios were terrifying and pressure-filled. But they were also fun and invigorating. When I run into a former colleague from those days, we fall into an easy rapport. The kind you have with someone with whom you’ve been through a defining experience.

    Our boss one time decided to hide a lucrative proposal opportunity from us until the last minute. His logic: it takes us as much time as we have to get something done. If we have two weeks, we’ll take two weeks. If a week, a week. So, if he gave us two days, we could get it done in two days, right?

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The work we did under the pressure of deadlines was not our best work. At some point, as time grew shorter, we crossed the line where sloppiness was forgiven in service of the greater good which, in this case, was to get the damn thing in on time.

    Furthermore, those times were stressful for us and our families. How many responsibilities did we let slip? How many priorities did we miss? It’s ok when it’s genuine. And infrequent. Everybody understands (mostly). Everyone is willing to do their part. When it becomes de rigueur, though, not so much. When these situations are a matter of course, they become false, hollow, manufactured. And ultimately unforgivable.

    When we found out our boss had locked that RFP in his drawer until the last minute, we were pissed!

    After that, our willingness to go all-in for him was compromised. We felt betrayed. He violated our trust. Forever after, we wondered if he was manipulating us. As we all know, that’s one of the fastest ways to cause employees to become disengaged.

    I know this isn’t exactly what was being proposed in the Wag the Dog scenario. But as a leader and a boss, I would be reluctant to pull something like this on my people. I respect them too much. I know I didn’t like it when it happened to me.

    1. I hear you. My thought was less about managing time and more about creating a crucible in which the team forms and relies on each other. I know I suggested a “fake” task but I don’t think I’d actually do that in reality. But I would accept challenges no one else might in order to work that angle.

  2. I’m afraid you may be missing the mark here. While we often do form bonds with those ‘in the trenches’ with us (so-to-speak) during some pretty high-pressure situations, we’re united by a mission we believe in and the opportunity to do important, engaging work together. We can see that what we will deliver matters, and support one another to successfully accomplish this work.

    Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your team (After all, you hired them, right?). When managers start ‘manufacturing’ work or assigning work with low value/high pressure, they quickly lose the trust and support of the team. The team may be unsure whether you’re trying to sell them on the idea that the work is so important it requires full dedication, or if you’re simply not bright enough to understand that the work you’re assigning isn’t the best use of their time and skills. Either way, you lose some respect and trust.

    With the rapid pace of change today, I’m not sure where one would work that there aren’t enough ‘natural disasters’ that require ‘all hands on deck. There also seems to be an endless list of meaningful work that requires collaboration, upskilling, and needs to be done quickly.

    1. True… and I do agree. Maybe I should suggest that managers actively look for important – yet hugely challenging tasks – vs. creating the fake ones.

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