Motivating Employees: Are You Building Wells or Fences?

Think Shift

At its very core, your company culture is a collection of shared values and behaviors — ones that are encouraged or discouraged by people, processes and policies. One way to become more intentional about the culture you create is by identifying the behaviors that support the culture you wish to create, then enacting policies that encourage that kind of behavior.

At Think Shift, one way we do this is by asking ourselves — does this policy create a fence, or a well? Here’s an analogy.

In Australia, cattle ranches stretch across large expanses of countryside, so ranchers are faced with an immense challenge: how to keep their livestock from wandering off their property. Of course, the most obvious and simplest solution is to build a fence around their property. Fences, while easy to conceive and construct, are costly to maintain, as repairing miles of fence year after year becomes an ongoing ranching chore.

The second option is to build multiple wells throughout the property. Digging wells is difficult and costly initially; it requires specialized equipment and a lot of time and money sunk into dry holes before finding a wet one. It also requires trust in the belief that cattle will stay close to their water source rather than wander off the property. However, once the wells are in place, maintenance is much simpler than mending a fence line.

In this analogy, ranchers must choose what works best for them — to rely on the restriction of the fence or the pull of the well to keep their cattle bounded. Both work but they work in different ways. In much the same way, leaders can influence the behavior of their employees by deciding if the policies they implement build fences or create wells.

Note that we’re not advocating for one over the other — there are always scenarios where a “fence” may make more sense than a “well,” and vice versa. Rather, we are asking: “are your policies biased towards wells or fences?” and “what would be the implications to your culture if you replaced one with the other?”

Here are a few things to consider about each:

Fences are:

  • Rule-based
  • Most effective with externally-motivated employees
  • A more traditional management approach
  • Relatively simple to conceive, but difficult to maintain

The main purpose of a fence is to define limits and set boundaries. For example, expense reports typically require approval as a simple way to monitor employee spending behavior. And while it’s easy to set the policy, maintaining it takes effort — managers must set aside time to review and approve expenses and the payroll department must hold them accountable to ensure expenses are reported and approved in a timely fashion.

Wells are:

  • Purpose-based
  • Most effective with intrinsically-motivated employees
  • A non-traditional management approach
  • Relatively difficult to conceive, but simple to maintain

Wells are inclusive and interpretative. Unlike fences, they are not black and white; rather, they rely on common sense and a commitment to shared purpose. Wells empower employees to make decisions and behave in ways they think are right. They invite discretion and therefore trust. Because of this, they should connect where possible to the company’s core values.

For instance, we don’t approve expense reports at Think Shift because transparency is one of our core values. Instead, expense reports are shared publicly with the entire company. Our employees are motivated to make good spending decisions (and call themselves out if they incur expenses out of the ordinary) because they know that everyone in the company sees their expenses. Though this policy was difficult to conceive initially because it required a paradigm shift away from a traditional process, it is simple to maintain — the only effort required is a weekly posting of expense reports — saving our managers and accounting team a great deal of time and effort.

Neither wells nor fences are objectively “better,” although our sense is that most companies default to fences without asking if creating a well would be a better option. We advise, as part of a regularly scheduled culture check-up (the best time being early in your strategic planning cycle), to take a look at your internal policies and decide if they are serving as wells or fences, and if they should change to support your company culture more effectively.


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