"Uncle Dan, give me a challenge!"  My 12-year old niece was at the edge of the huge community pool. She and her brother were enjoying the last “pool day” of summer. They had been playing and leaping off the diving boards for almost an hour. Give me a challenge! The first translation of this phrase was easy. “Make this pool interesting, my brain is getting bored.” As she swam underwater across the pool in four breaths, she turned and waved at me after every breath. The second translation became more apparent with reflection: “I want you to pay attention and interact with me.” I realized that this is the real purpose for goals at work.  I also realized why goals so often fail.

My niece wanted to prove she was more interesting than everything around her.  The keys to this were: 1) Provide her with a challenge that could be met only if she pushed herself. 2) Provide her with almost instant validation that her efforts were being appreciated.

Employees start their time with any new job, or boss, with this same attitude. First, let me have a little fun and explore. Second, give me something that makes me think or stretches my abilities. And, whatever you do, pay attention to me and interact with me as I reach my goals.

This simple concept has driven each of us since we were first able to communicate. When we were just one year old, we made sure mom and dad watched as we walked or got into things we shouldn’t. When we were ten, we sang in the choir with the full intent to find our parents in the audience and get a smile from them. Answering a question with “nothing” as a high school kid meant: “please spend a bit more time inquiring what is really wrong." College and pro athletes get on camera and immediately say hi to their mom and friends.  We have always wanted recognition for doing something that required effort.

Do we use this innate human need for growth and attention to our advantage at work? Cash or equity compensation can be used as a real link to goals and engagement (performance-based compensation), or it can be used as reason for why employees should be engaged (time-based compensation). This difference is often subtle, but always profound. Employees, like all people, crave challenges and validation. Providing one without the other will result in failure.

Think about what you wish your employees were doing. Brainstorm on ways to turn these things into interesting challenges. Insist that managers and executives pay attention to goals as they are met. Tie employee pay and recognition to these challenges and work will be like the interesting fun of childhood, instead of the boring labor of adulthood. (P.S. I want to go swimming!)

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