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Can’t Pay Your Employees What You’d Like? Praise Them Instead

Good to see you here in 2011 with yet another business year ahead – and with the mining boom mark 2 looming, that means potential revenue bonanzas and staff retention dilemmas! This article was written by leading business consultant, Kevin Gray this time last year. It possibly resonates even more into 2011 – Enjoy

Hoping for a raise in 2010? How about a nice pat on the back?

The economy may be showing signs of life, but that doesn’t mean managers and employers are starting to shower their people with cash. Far from it. Instead, they’re turning to an old-timey, feel-good technique to motivate their overburdened workers: praise.

“It’s probably the most powerful driver of performance known to mankind,” says Bob Nelson, a workplace consultant who has advised Fortune 100 companies on the use of praise. “Whether it’s an employee or a spouse, you get more of what you want when you praise someone.”

As a motivational tool, of course, praise has been around forever, long before the self-styled experts began teaching us how to practice it. But the praise-making industry only came into vogue as the coddled offspring of Baby Boomers — the kids who got soccer trophies whether they won or lost — entered the workforce en masse and required constant complimenting.

Then the economy blew up, leaving empty cubicles, cut wages, forced furloughs, and a whole lot of insecure workers. Today, it’s not just Gen Y that needs emotional reinforcement. It’s everyone. All employees and their managers are more stressed than ever, working faster and with fewer resources. And lots of managers mistakenly think they are too busy to give praise.

“The only time you hear from the boss is when you made a mistake,” says Nelson, “And bosses think they don’t have to do this because you’re lucky to have a job now. People need it more but tend to get it less.”

Make your praise tangible

Giving out praise isn’t as easy as you might think, and the approaches vary. One strategy, says Nelson, is to make praise visible. Visit the offices of BankBoston, for instance, and you’ll spot gold embroidered stars all over the place, little decorative rewards from managers to good workers. “You walk around and people have these stars on their cubicles maybe attached to their name tags,” says Nelson.

Elsewhere, companies are trying to add a little levity — perhaps as a way to lessen the risk that forced praise in bad times can seem insincere, even hokey. Nelsen recommends gag trophies. At TRW in San Diego, managers buy a piece of junk at the flea market each year, say a lamp or a pitcher, that they pass around each month to recognize a job well done, says Nelson. The winner decorates the trophy to give it personal flair.

Other companies are tossing in some prizes — a little something to sprinkle on the thank you in these dire times. At the Universal Orlando theme park, which last year shed jobs due to the slump, managers give each other S.A.Y. IT! cards, which stand for Someone Appreciates You, and are redeemable for movie tickets, dinners, and other gifts. Says Rhonda Rhodes, vice president of human resources at Universal: “You take care of your people and they will take care of your customers.”

Even Bank of America, with 200,000-plus employees, is in on the praise action. Part of its motivation program rewards workers with recognition points that they can redeem for gifts. The idea, says BofA’s spokeswoman Kelly Sapp, is to “keep associates engaged and ultimately drive business results.”

Change the way you talk

Perhaps the most effective praise doesn’t come with a coupon, but rather from human interaction. And this often the most difficult, especially for managers for whom praise doesn’t come naturally. Jerry Pounds, who has consulted for Wal-Mart and Ford and writes a blog called Positive Influence, advises managers to praise intellect and problem-solving skills, working the flattery into everyday discussions. “If the boss comes out of the office and shakes your hand then goes back in that’s no good,” Pounds says. “There’s no need for gimmicks.”

Nelson, who wrote the book “Keeping Up In a Down Economy,” advises managers to create a new mindset. When the thought crosses your mind that someone has done a good job, act on it. Pick up the phone, jot a note, or send an email. Better yet, says Nelson, go find the person no matter what they’re doing.

“Have you ever interrupted someone in a meeting to give them good news?” says Nelson. “It’s exceptional. You say, ‘Hey, I know you’re in middle of something, but I had to let you know. We blew past last quarter’s numbers. No way that could happen without you and your team.’ That little 10 seconds is going to be conversation at dinner that evening.”

The words you choose are critical, so tread carefully. Mark Holmes, an employee-retention consultant and author of “The People Keeper: How Managers Can Attract, Motivate and Retain Better Employees,” advises his corporate clients to find specific attributes that show that you, the boss, really are paying attention.

“You can simply say, ‘I want to say thank you for being somebody not afraid to tell me what you need to say,’” says Holmes. “Or you say, ‘The thing I appreciate about you Joe is you’re consistent.’ Or ‘Suzie, you are great as a mentor with our younger employees.’ Or ‘I love your contribution. I love the way you speak up in meetings.’ It all means the world to an employee.”

Oddly, the best workers are often the ones who get overlooked by the praise givers — like the good kids in a family, who are seen as capable and directed. Yet those are often the people bosses need to go out of the way to praise in bad times so they stick around in good. “It’s not uncommon for a high-performing employee to leave companies because of a lack of feedback,” says Holmes.

Turn praise into dollars

Anyone who doubts that proper praise can boost a company’s bottom line along with its morale should listen to what happened at Houston-based Tetra Technologies, a service company in the oil and gas industry. Steve Hardwick, the global vice president of business development, brought Holmes in 2008 after a dozen big Tetra accounts had shrunk. Holmes worked with the sales and marketing teams on building teamwork and recapturing that business. A big part of what Holmes did was to make sure specific achievements were recognized.

“He made a big deal of saying, as we rolled out a new product and sought accounts, “’Look what Joe did over here,” says Hardwick. “Or he’d say, ‘Bob’s got it, look at what he told customers.’”

Tetra ended up bringing all of those lapsed accounts back into the fold. It also recently extended its contract with Shell — one of its largest accounts — for an additional three years. Two of his top guys had led the effort. “I took time to take both of these guys to dinner one-on-one and tell them how much I appreciate them,” says Hardwick. And while Hardwick says the company does its best to compensate high performers, he says praise is often equal to money.

“Money is inert,” he says. “A few thousand here or there isn’t going to be the reason you leave a job. What’s important is how you feel about how you’re fitting in, producing, contributing as part of the team, all non-monetary issues.”

True enough. Even so, most of us wouldn’t mind a few extra thousand along with the praise!

Kevin Gray January 2010


Jeff Austin

Actual to Ideal

Bunbury Business Coach

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