To Ping-or-not-to-Pong? It’s Leadership Not Perks that Fuels People

Should your company get a ping-pong table? Have you asked this question as you try things to retain your great people or increase your employee engagement?

You may have overheard your people talking enviously about the company down the way that just got a ping-pong table (or something else) for their people. If you got one, will ping-pong be a distraction from their work? Will those who hate ping pong be painfully distracted? Hey tech leaders, believe it or not, many of your people will hate ping-pong or at least the thought of it. Then, you may also have your own possible self-doubt where you wonder if saying "yes" to ping-pong creates a slippery slope of giving into the whims of the employment market or your people. Will such a decision ultimately set a bad precedent and reduce your employees’ productivity through distraction? These are real and valid thoughts we all think about. Figuring out employee engagement is tough work.

So, over a year ago I’m hanging out with a cool CEO, Shauna Swerland of Fuel Talent. She’s built a great talent agency here in Seattle (got a Best Place to Work award!). We were chatting about things when I notice the ping-pong table in their office. I say to her that I think it’s cool that she would do that for her people. She bought a brand new table and equipment for her team! She tells me that we're in Seattle and we have to be ready for the yearly Geekwire Ping-Pong Tournament (This is a can't miss tech event in Seattle!). At one point in our conversation she says in a slightly unsure tone, "there could be a lot of ping pong going on." My take: she has the slight concern of ping-pong becoming a distraction. How much ping-pong is too much? Do you set hours? How do you regulate it?

It was clear that Shauna wanted to make a fun and positive place to work, but it also came with a risk. Keep in mind, she understands very well, how important retention is in the workplace. After all, she helps companies when their retention efforts fall short: she finds people to fill the vacated or needed jobs. In a later conversation, she tells me that she was hoping for a better intersection between different work areas and between work and life for her people.

If you have similar worries and concerns about getting ping-pong for your company, you might first want to answer this question, “do I want to inspire or do I want to control my people?” Just know one thing, once you exert the coercive effort or the negative pressure needed to control your people, that effort will be required again, again and again, and at increasing levels. So, you can control your people, or, your people can care about work and self-regulate. You might want to consider this: the efforts and costs for self-fueled and regulating people are far less than the costs for controlling them.

With that, I’d recommend inspiring your people since it’s way more efficient in the long run. This'll require you to do three things: (1) explain your why, (2) show that you care and (3) give your trust to them. Oh, and you’ll simply find, you and your people will have more fun and be more engaged.

Why + Care + Trust = Inspired & Aligned People

Tell them why you bought them a brand new ping pong table. The “why” is critical and essential for building trust. Simon Sinek has some great work on this in his book, Start with Why, and in multiple Ted Talks. When you provide your "why", your people know your motive. It’s really important to realize how vital this is. You see, we don’t second-guess what somebody does for us, or how something is done for us, but we do second-guess “why” somebody is doing something for us. Joe does something nice and when we don’t know why, we say, “he must want something.” In the absence of why, the what and how are tainted by doubt. If we know why Joe did it, we simply thank him or do something nice back. It's far easier for your people to embrace your "what" and "how" when they're not second-guessing your why and that allows them to align more easily.

It’s important to note though, that you show that you care, and it’s genuine. Your sincerity of heart that you express, that's what really changes the game. It also needs to be about them before it’s about the money. After all, they are the ones doing the work. When your people feel they matter, then they’ll know that your trust you place in them has a much higher value, and in return, they will be more diligent to preserve your trust. It’s personal. This is really about your relationship with them. When you explain why and show you care, your people buy into it, they see their value in the purpose and in themselves personally. You can get alignment through pressure or coercion, but it will never be as strong and resilient as when it comes from the heart that cares.

Giving trust is your action that seals the deal with your people. They are now your co-owners in solving problems and exceeding company aspirations. They are not minions at your command. You depend on them and it’s that simple. How you see your people is how they will value and see themselves in your light, and their performance will rise and fall in accord. When you give trust that is truly dependent, this inspires internal motivation and now your talented people are self-fueled (yes, pun intended) and create their own motivating energy. Your people believe that they matter to you in the big picture and co-own your company dreams and challenges. The nice thing about when you give something to somebody and they take it, now they own it. Give trust.

Back to ping-pong for the moment: There is a Good Why for Ping-Pong

With respect to ping-pong, here is a good why to consider. You bought it for them, and in fact, it’s a business tool. Frame ping-pong as part of their job. Why do they have it? So they can use it to change their mindsets and be challenged to wake up their brain chemistries to optimal levels in order to perform at their best. Ask them to play and tell them you expect them to play! (And for those who will never play, find something for them too.) You bought them the table so they can have a more fun and healthier work place. Your employees need interactions that take them beyond challenges and problems, especially if they are full of high pressure or frustration. 

By telling them this you are saying, “I care for, and, I trust you.” They will value your trust in them. Why you are doing this with, and for them, matters far more than the ping-pong itself. Why frames and provides the alignment that your people need in order to understand how ping pong is their business tool.   

  • Now when your people play ping-pong it always has a fun purpose
  • It has a context- it’s a business tool
  • Your people will be less likely to avoid performing by playing it because they will play it to perform better
  • Ping-pong can be a big plus, resets brain chemistry, help people to be more positive, used to rejuvenate buy-in, lower fatigue, help them to care, be a reason to learn more to be better.
  • Last but not least, it represents that your people’s lives and performance matter to you

In reality, this isn’t about ping-pong as a perk. It’s about, as Mark Crowely, in his very worth reading book, Lead from the Heart, calls it, being an “authentic and supportive leader.” When a leader (like Shauna) takes care of her people, her people get inspired and return the favor. And, that’s what really matters for sustained employee engagement. They take care of her by taking care of the customers. In her case, the table is just the conduit where she shows that she cares about her employees and, yes, even her customers too. Ultimately, at the highest motivational level, people do for people, then people do for purpose and then people do for pay. No one ever said, "I'll give my life for that process!" However, putting oneself at risk for another, now, that happens all the time.

Adding it all up

If you want inspired and self fueled people who are engaged, do three things: (1) explain your why, (2) show that you care and (3) give trust to them. Wait, we better add one more, don't do things that undermine these three acts.

If you’re wondering how things turned out at Fuel Talent and ping-pong, well, they received a Best Place to Work award, but, it might have a lot more to do with a leader who really cares about her people, and vice versa. This came through loud and clear while visiting them at their recent open house when they celebrated year one in their new office. They know why. They show they care. They give trust. They're inspired and aligned.  And, I got my backside handed to me in a game of ping-pong by a very engaged Fuel Talent employee.