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If you want to engage your employees and inspire them to greater productivity, Rodd Wagner believes you will need to change the rules of your workplace.

The Minneapolis-based consultant believes that in the past decade, companies have become even more inclined to view employees as cogs in the wheel – Widgets, according to the title of his new book. The result is less engagement, and a blizzard of surveys, metrics and programs with acronyms to try to energize employees.

The prevailing corporate view is of humans as selfish and economically driven. But he feels employees are driven by reciprocity – motivated by principle, a sense of obligation, and the satisfaction of doing something good for someone else.

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He builds on that in devising 12 rules to mend the broken social contract at work:

1. Get inside their heads

Every person's motivations, abilities and goals are different. The direct supervisor, as main motivator, must know what's in each employee's head. This is the gateway to all the other actions you need to take, and the toughest, as managers have too many meetings and direct reports. Find time for a coffee with each staff member.

2. Make them fearless

You must ensure your staff members are not distracted or paralyzed by fears, notably about job security in a world of acquisitions and layoffs. "They should know that if something comes up, management will tell them," he said in the interview. You also must coach them so that they know if something negative happens to the firm, they will be employable. That builds fearlessness.

3. Make money a non-issue

Research shows money is not the greatest day-to-day motivator. With the exception of a commissioned salesperson, it's in the background, boring. But if no pay increases have occurred for three years or a recruiter offers somebody $10,000 more, you have a problem. So pay well enough that money is a non-issue should that recruiter call.

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4. Help them thrive

If people are overworked, they won't thrive – they'll degrade. Managers should ensure there is healthy food in the cafeteria, standing desks for those interested, fresh air, flexibility to exercise during the day, and a sensible workload.

5. Be cool

In his father's day, work was work and then you went home and enjoyed life. He would have scoffed at the notion to be cool. But people want to work for cool – not necessarily hip – companies where they enjoy the work and their colleagues. Don't try to be Google or Southwest Airlines, however. Be yourself (but cool).

6. Be boldly transparent

Nearly everybody carries a camera in their pocket today. Social media allows communication in an unprecedented fashion. Information about your company will come out, so don't fight it. "Be transparent to the fullest extent possible or explain why you can't right now and how the decisions people are concerned about will be made," he says.

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7. Don't kill the meaning

People gravitate to meaning. They prefer it at work. So don't take money away from a recognition program and plunk it into some trivial activity. Don't tread on your mission if it's inspiring people. Meaning is personal, so you can't force it on people. It will vary from employee to employee. Be careful not to kill it.

8. See their future

Organizations have changed from the time his father worked for IBM and expected to be with the company for his full career. The future came from the company, if you were devoted and capable. These days, organizations must make it clear they will prepare people for a better future someplace – at this firm, or elsewhere – by building skills.

9. Magnify their success

Whenever we succeed, our brain gets a surge of dopamine in the reward centre of the brain. It's a primal need. "When we're recognized, we get that dopamine and want to get it again. If it's not there, people see themselves as in a thankless job, literally. People don't do thankless jobs. They avoid them," he says. So recognize their successes.

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10. Unite them

Managers like to say their employees are like family. Not so, he says, since employees are hired. But team metaphors are apt – individuals are brought together for a time to accomplish something and feel they can achieve more as a team than alone. But don't ask them to "take one for the team." It has to be reciprocal.

11. Let them lead

Motivation surveys ask whether the company listens to the employee. But he believes you need to go further, ensuring individuals can take a lead on an idea or project, even if they're not a manager. "Ask yourself: If I turned them loose and coached, what could my employees accomplish?" he says.

12. Take it to extremes

We live in an era of extreme sports. Arrange it so people can achieve more in your workplace than anywhere else.

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Over all, it boils down to stop trying, consciously or unconsciously, to turn your employees into widgets. "Corporations are powerful and people are reciprocal. How an organization wields its power will determine employee's motivation," he concludes.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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