You Can Lead a Horse to Water… But Can You Make an Employee Engaged?

There’s an old proverb used by many to describe the leader/follower dynamic with respect to employee engagement: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” This is a way of saying ultimately people will only do what they choose, even if you show them the way. In other words, just as a horse has to choose to drink, an employee must choose to be engaged.

Well, yes and no. Getting the horse to drink is the desired outcome, but what happens up to and during that point will influence his willingness to do so.

  • If you’ve been running the horse ragged without any time to recuperate, he won’t have the energy to make it to water.
  • If you’ve been shouting at the horse and beating him with a stick, he won’t trust you no mater where you’re trying to lead him.
  • If the terrain is rocky and you force him to walk in busted, rusty horseshoes, he isn’t going to be all that thrilled about going the distance.
  • If you feed the horse 1 pound of oats a day when he really should be getting 3 pounds, he’s going to focus on finding food elsewhere instead of following you.
  • If the water is polluted or tastes funky, the horse isn’t going to drink.

Here’s what I’m getting at: If the employee experience at your organization sucks, employee engagement isn’t likely to happen. Too many leaders fall into the trap of thinking a lack of engagement is the employee’s fault; that they’re choosing not to be engaged. Take a good look at what it’s like to work for you before making that judgement. And start with the basics — a reasonable workload, an empathetic leadership style, effective tools to get the job done, fair pay, and a healthy work culture. Then make adjustments if anything is wrong. As a leader, it’s your job to create an employee experience that makes them want to go above and beyond.

Horses need to be enticed, not forced, to drink water. What kind of employee experience are you creating, and is it enough to entice engagement? Remember, employees don’t engage themselves. Leaders engage employees.

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