Are you getting weary of the words “engagement” and “culture”? You are not alone. We love to hear stories about this magical state of the workplace, but after many company picnics, engagement contests, and swag giveaways, it simply has not happened for most. Even if we find the mystical formula to improve employee engagement, we are discouraged from being told it will take years to generate significant, sustainable results. If this is where you find yourself, the untold part of the story of Pavlov’s Dogs holds some encouraging news for you. After working in several industries with over seventy companies and hundreds of people leaders, I am both witness and partner to some incredible turnarounds that changed lives and set records in key performance indicators (KPIs). These companies experienced both improved culture and stronger business results, and they did not do it with major campaigns or expensive gimmicks. Universally, people respond to a few elemental concepts some companies have forgotten. What happened “after the bells” in Pavlov’s story may hold the key to achieving the culture upgrade your company wants.

The experiments Ivan Pavlov conducted on dogs are fairly well known. He trained them to salivate whenever they heard a bell ring by giving them food right after they heard the sound. In fact, they learned this behavioral response so well that Ivan was unable to make them stop responding this way. He performed many experiments and treatments, but the dogs could not stop salivating when they heard the bell. How does one “uninstall” such a deeply engrained behavior pattern?

The answer came one September evening in 1924 when the lab was overwhelmed by a flood. The dogs were immersed in icy water and understandably distressed. Thankfully, they survived, and Ivan’s team was able to restore both the lab and dogs to good order so that research could continue. They were surprised when they rang the bell once again, but this time, the dogs failed to salivate as they had previously. They rang the bell again, and still nothing. Overnight, the dogs completely and sustainably lost a habit they found impossible to quit just a day before. Ivan wondered if this were an exceptional event or if it could be repeated. He retrained the dogs to drool for the bell until they could not stop themselves, just like before the flood. Once they achieved this level of training, Ivan recreated circumstances similar to the flood. The dogs experienced the cold water and once again lost their ability to salivate at the bell.

"Person-to-person empathy is impactful, but it is also possible for the corporation to demonstrate empathy at scale"

This incident led to a greater understanding of how both animals and people respond to stimuli during times of crisis. One of the main takeaways for Ivan was that circumstances that raise anxiety push the mind into a state that is highly available to change. In the case of his dogs, they immediately reversed behaviors that were impossible to change under normal circumstances.

Getting back to culture improvement and employee engagement, under normal conditions, improving these requires a great deal of time, effort, and resources. If the culture is deeply established and toxic, you may feel doomed, and all of the pizza parties and giveaways in the world will not move the needle. However, when team members are enduring a time of difficulty in their lives, they are very available to a new way of thinking which could dynamically affect company culture. Consider how powerful it would be to have a manager or other colleague reach out to an employee in support when they have a sick relative, are going through a divorce, or are enduring some other daunting life circumstance. This is about offering an authentic, thoughtful word or deed of encouragement when it matters most. There is no need to delve deeply into our employees’ personal lives to seek out these opportunities, as this would be inappropriate. Rather, we just need to see our team members as human and offer a bit of human-to-human support. In a word, ‘empathy’ makes a world of difference.

Person-to-person empathy is impactful, but it is also possible for the corporation to demonstrate empathy at scale. At the time of this writing, employees all over are coping with anxiety about shifting markets, pandemic threats, and employment security. The media has flooded them with reasons to worry, and they carry this burden with them through the day even when they do not show it. In a way, they are going through various crises like Pavlov’s team witnessed. For the forward-thinking, noble company, this is one of the best times ever to speak to the hearts of their employees with genuine empathy. When done well, such an investment will far exceed any previous manufactured engagement campaign and will improve attendance, production, quality, and any other metric your company counts as contributing to success.

Demonstrating Corporate Empathy:

 Acknowledge the Challenge - Begin by acknowledging the employees’ concerns regarding whatever crisis they are facing.
• Express Intent - Do not make promises you may not be able to keep but express the company’s intent to do everything possible to minimize the crisis’ impact on employees and come out on the other side stronger as an organization.
 Communicate Often - “One and Done” will not be effective. People need reinforcement. Provide a regular update describing the circumstances, any revised plans to mitigate them, and expectations of how long things are likely to remain this way.
• Script Your Managers - Corporate bulletins are important, but local leaders are the “oracle of truth” for employees. Team members often trust them far more than a corporate memo, so do not leave this conversation to chance. Tell frontline leaders what you want them to say and how to respond to certain important questions.
• Gratitude is King - A consistent message authentically appreciating your employees for who they are and what they do cannot be overdone. The more creative and authentic your gratitude, the more rapidly your employees will create the engaged culture to which your firm has aspired.

This list may feel a bit foreign to some leaders, but then great culture is not common to many companies either. Maybe it is time to try a different tack. If your firm is interested in fast, game-changing cultural improvement, be intentional about demonstrating and encouraging empathy to your employees during difficult times. No gimmick, campaign, or giveaway can compete with this strategy for sheer speed and impact.