What makes employees want to do their best? Right at the top of motivators is positive reinforcement, i.e., people who thoughtfully listen to our ideas, recognize our strengths and reward our efforts with appreciation. There are plenty of managers and executives with weak people skills who think beautiful buildings, snazzy perks and fat paychecks will bring out the best in people. They don’t. So they try threats, bonuses and demands for accountability – getting a combination of fear, greed and blaming in response. They believe a simple thank you is recognition enough for going above and beyond. It isn’t. And money is no substitute for that human touch.
Management logic is important but emotional intelligence is the soul of leadership. I worked with one employer who thought that loudly threatening people with firing shouldn’t matter since he never followed through. He was generally a caring guy who had lost respect for people’s abilities and feelings. He thought management’s job was to pass along orders and fix (rather than prevent) problems. He couldn’t believe employees would be so disloyal as to demand a union. More on him later.
James Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote the definitive book on leadership, The Leadership Challenge, now in its fourth edition, having sold nearly two million copies. The final one of its five sections is entitled, “Encourage the Heart” – with two dimensions: Positive Recognition and Celebrating. Both dimensions communicate what we value.
How often should you tell people what you appreciate? The Gallup Study has shown the bottom line power of employees saying that they have received praise or recognition in the last seven days.
What prevents us from doing what we know works? “I’m busy.” “I don’t have time.” “People should know they are doing a good job – I shouldn’t have to tell them.” Are you too busy to put gas in the tank? Too busy to train, plan and communicate in person? Too busy to maintain your machinery? There are certain essentials that must be done by responsible supervisors – since the people we supervise will be engaged or disengaged depending on whether their work is clearly valued by their direct supervisors. The appreciation of co-workers, customers, vendors and higher level managers all are kindling but the fuel that makes the fire burn hot is the heart-felt appreciation of one’s supervisor.
We need feedback to be secure that we are doing right and doing well. When we are praised, our confidence and energy go up and we set goals, commit to whatever it takes and become both more careful and daring. And the research shows that four or five times as much positive recognition is needed to balance criticism so that constructive criticism is valued rather than discouraging.
Can we overdo being positive? Yes, frequent fawning or praise that is phony, patronizing or vague (“Good job!” isn’t specific enough) are counter-productive. Public praise can create envy or embarrass. And more than 13 times as many compliments as suggestions for improvement is too many for most. Some need it more (the insecure) and some need it less (the crusty veterans), but we all need it, especially by people who understand how hard we are trying and what makes a meaningful difference.
So how do we get supervisors to celebrate team progress and reinforce people who are just starting to achieve? We clarify that it is an important part of their job. We train them to do it well. We reinforce every initial bit of progress (the first steps are the hardest) and we lead by example.
What happened to that hard-headed dictator who feared a union? He got expert help in clarifying what bothered employees and what they wanted. He listened to advice, invested in training both supervisors and employees (and attended himself), admitted to his failings and got flexible. We got all to agree that if ten supervisor practices were changed, it would be a great place to work. I strongly advised employees to reinforce their supervisors’ efforts since, for example, a suspicious response to a compliment really slow down progress.
The leadership improved across the board. The interest in a union dissolved. People were nicer to each other and became much more productive. And instead of only 75 people showing up to the company picnic, 250 attended with a spirit of “We are all in this together –and we’re proud to be here.”
Make recognition a top priority in your organization and you will see everyone leading with heart.
Glen Fahs, Cascade’s most senior facilitator, helps good employers to become Great Employers. Don’t miss his upcoming classes, both on January 10th, on Training and Employee Development and Recognition Techniques and Programs.