In praise of praise

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Have you complimented your employees today? If not, consider the idea. Bob Nelson, author and consultant, says employees in today’s workplaces need only some recognition and appreciation to boost their productivity and loyalty. He’s got suggestions, and a lot of them won’t cost you a dime.

In some companies, a rubber chicken is a coveted award. In others, a banana is a reward for a job well done.

Though it may sound as though management has gone to the clowns, these are real awards at two national companies, and according to Bob Nelson, they are good ideas that boost employee motivation.

And if anyone would know, it would be Nelson. As president and founder of Nelson Motivation Inc., a San Diego-based training and consulting company, he has dedicated a major part of the last 18 years studying management techniques and sharing his findings. Nelson is the author of 17 business books with titles such as 1001 Ways to Energize Employees and 1001 Ways to Reward Employees.

According to Nelson, the key to energizing employees is to acknowledge their achievements and to reward their successes. Positive reinforcement—rewarding behavior that you want repeated—can make all the difference in the productivity of your employees.

If that means presenting a rubber chicken to a star performer, so be it. KFC Corp. employees that go beyond the call of duty for are presented with the Floppy Chicken Award, numbered in sequence, a handwritten note of appreciation, and a $100 gift certificate.

Nelson says that if you can reward a person while also having fun, you’ll satisfy two important workplace desires: to be appreciated and to enjoy the workplace.

And money doesn’t have to be a part of a reward. As Nelson points out, recent research shows that encouragement, recognition and support can be more important than financial incentives.

A study conducted by Dr. Gerald H. Graham, professor of management at Wichita State University, revealed that the most powerful motivator for employees was personalized, instant recognition from their managers.

Such is the case in Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Golden Banana Award. The award had humble beginnings as an impromptu item fished from a supervisor’s desk to serve as an instant acknowledgement of an employee’s accomplishment. Though the employee was initially puzzled by the “award,” it evolved into one of the most prestigious honors to be presented.

Nelson travels the country, delivering speeches and giving presentations to thousands of business owners and managers. Last month, he came to Pittsburgh as part of WYNCOM’s “Lessons in Leadership” series.

This month, we rely on Nelson’s nearly two decades of experience for knowledge that will help boost employee morale, satisfaction and productivity.

How can an employer motivate and energize an employee?

I think the most important things that help employees be energized today are, for the most part, things that don’t cost a lot money—more a function of how people are treated on a day-to-day basis. Trust and respect, and that they understand what is expected of them, and that they are encouraged and thanked when they do a good job, and that they are involved in the decisions that affect them. That they are given a say in how they do their jobs, and are given a chance to learn new skills and those types of things that allow for a workplace to be one where people want to come to work….Or if you’re not doing them, a place where people would rather not be.

What is the state of affairs in companies? Are they not praising their workers?

I think in most organizations, it just isn’t happening enough. So the books are a reminder of their importance, and practical techniques for how to do it by showing examples from other companies that are doing it today…. So, I think, first of all, as a company, if you don’t think about this stuff and you haven’t thought about what to do or how you want the place to be, you won’t be doing it. This is the type of stuff that happens by accident these days. So you have to be intentional about doing these types of things, including thanking people.

I think there are a lot of things working against these seemingly simple activities, including the speed of business, the pressures of business, the competition, the stress, all those types of things focus most organizations on pressuring employees to work faster and harder—and a lot of times, the things I’ve talked about go to the wayside.

There are some people who just naturally praise. They are “people people,” but how can an employer who may not come naturally to the art of praise, adopt these practices without coming off as sounding phony or fake?

There are managers who are naturally good at this, they are more people-oriented, they are courteous, they have empathy, they think of others. And I think regardless of the circumstances, they would come back to those principles. I guess I believe that it’s no longer sufficient that we have managers that do this on their own volition, by chance. If you are in the role of manager, you need to know about the importance of doing this type of thing. And you need to have the skills and the tools to do them.

I guess we’ve adopted that these seemingly simple things have got to be a higher priority, that they’re an important part of every working environment. Or else, you are likely to lose your people and lose your business.

So you think that everyone is capable of doing this?

I think that it’s hard to change someone overnight. If you have a manager who has never done this, and they’re basically a grump and they have these high expectations and think these people are lazy, you’re not going to be successful changing that person’s personality. But you still have a system, if they’re willing to do this type of thing, if they want to be able to attract and keep workers who do the best job. And so you can still find things that the person can do that are to their abilities. Maybe that person isn’t comfortable giving someone praise for doing a good job, for whatever reason. And so maybe you find something else that they are comfortable doing. Maybe you could get them to write notes of acknowledgement thanking someone, or maybe you could get them to attend department staff meetings. Just through their presence, it shows that they show an interest and showed that they are concerned. There’s a lot that goes into having a manager show respect of others. Inviting them (employees) to a meeting they have never been to before. Giving them an assignment that they know that person is interested in, special assignments. It could be giving them greater flexibility in their job, or instead of solving a problem for an employee, allowing them to give it their best shot. These books consider thousands of things successful managers have used. Of these thousands of possibilities, which ones could you do? Which ones couldn’t you? There are personality differences. Which are you comfortable with trying and can you use that as a starting point to build on to make the work environment a little bit more like what we’re describing?

For business owners, how do you get your managers, who are the ones that really work closely with the employees, to recognize employee accomplishments? In other words, how can an owner motivate his or her managers?

The best way for a business owner is to do it themselves. Then they are modeling the behavior that they want the managers doing, and in so doing, it would be hard for them to get some of the physical objections that managers may raise about stuff—they just don’t have time, they’re too busy. If an owner of a company has time in this system, then that sets an example that no matter how busy we are, we need to take time to sit down with people’s efforts and say
, in a timely and specific manner, “I noticed,” and also discuss opportunities in their field.

What seems to be the biggest shortfall for employers when it comes to energizing employees

The biggest shortfall is probably that people recognize that this is an important thing to do, but still don’t do it. It’s kind of like exercise: Everyone knows they should be exercising, but it doesn’t make it any easier to do, it’s hard to find the time, and the ones who do are the one’s who are really committed to it. It’s the type of thing where you say, “Yeah, I know I should treat my employees right, and if I do so, I’ll get a better effort from them,” but then just don’t do it. You’re too busy doing your own jobs, and you focus on problems and mistakes that are happening, the negatives. You might say that people are the most important asset, but unless we’re showing it in our behavior, after a while, they’ll stop believing it.

Can you name your five favorite ways to energize employees, or to reward them?

The best, I think, are the simplest and most direct. The No. 1 is taking the time to personally thank someone for doing a good job, in a very specific timely manner. That could be as simple as, “John, thanks for staying late last night to finish that report. We were really up against a deadline, and it means a lot to me to take it upon yourself, without being asked, to make sure that we met our deadline. That’s the type of commitment that can help us meet our goals.” Something as simple as that, or to do a public thank-you, which would be at a staff meeting or a company meeting, or it could be something you put up on the bulletin board, or e-mail, or a wall of fame, or a pass-around trophy, or it could be a written note or letter in somebody’s personal file. Those are some of the top ones. It can go up from there. It could be bringing in ice cream and having a five-minute celebration about the success of the department. It could be giving people time off, giving people passes to go check out materials from the corporate library. It could be getting a special parking spot.

Can you apply these concepts across a broad job spectrum? Will the same kinds of things that you can do in an insurance company, for example, apply to a manufacturing environment?

I think that you have to start wherever you are and build on that. It’s hard to go from a place that has never done any of this, to overnight be a Disney or a Hewlett-Packard or a Starbucks or a highly motivated environment. But can you do one thing different that moves you in that direction? It can work in any environment. The things that are best to do would be a function of what you have done in the past involving the people, if you have. So the best management is what you do with people, not to them.

You mentioned Disney, Hewlett-Packard, and Starbucks. How do they treat their employees differently than the average company?

This is part of their culture. When I say this is part of their culture I mean this is ingrained into the practices of management, they have the tools and they deal with it at all levels. You take a place like Starbucks. They have a high value on trust and respect, they go from very simple, that interpersonal type thing, on up through employees being given the product as part of their job, and they get company stock and they get opportunities for training which help them be promotable. They’re doing all of it to some degree. For an hourly paid job, that people do for a part-time job, or while they’re in school, they tend to get people interested in making it a career because they love the company and the company treats them right.

Take a place like Disney. People are hired for their attitude and service to others, and that is reinforced in training. At Walt Disney World, for example, they have 180 recognition programs, at all levels: individual, team-based, organizational, spontaneous, and formal, they are doing this all the time in the company and looking for new things to come up with because it really works.

What about a smaller company that may not have the resources that a larger company like Disney would have?

They have a lot of advantages that a large company doesn’t have. They have frequent visibility with the owners. That’s worth a lot. They have the owners to talk about the vision of the organization and where they are headed. Small companies typically have people doing lots of different things to meet the needs that can be translated into a real excitement or flexibility. If someone has a specific interest in doing a certain type of work, or to work with customers, or to learn accounting, typical small companies can accommodate that. Because you’re small, your ability to communicate is greater. That’s an important part of having people feel involved. So I think, given the choice of trying to do these things in a large organization or in a small one, I’d always prefer a small organization. In a large corporation, people’s jobs get very narrow and specific. You get kind of rule-bound, with policy manuals telling you exactly how to do things, so individual initiative and autonomy goes way down. For a lot of people, it’s easier to feel like a cog in a machine, another cog in a wheel. And not to have your job be as fulfilling or valued.

Do you think it’s more important for a smaller business to recognize and reward employees?

I think it’s important in all environments to have recognition. It can be easier in a small business if the most powerful things are things that don’t cost a lot of money, like individual respect and autonomy and flexibility.