A Simple Secret Weapon

Ever hear the catch phrase, “Try to catch someone doing something right?” It’s from The One Minute Manager (1981) by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson. No matter how many times you hear it, it doesn’t get enough airplay. Apparently, it is way too easy to forget or ignore.

A recent story in the Wall Street Journal by Sue Shellenbarger titled “Showing Gratitude at the Office – No, Thanks” got me to stop and digest the quoted statistics twice before posting a sustained gasp across all my social networks. Here’s a telling clip:

Research suggests that employees who feel appreciated are more productive and loyal. But that message hasn’t reached many of those in charge. Some bosses are afraid employees will take advantage of them if they heap on the gratitude. Other managers believe in thank-yous but are nervous about appearing awkward or insincere—or embarrassing the employee they wish to praise.

A common attitude from the corner office is “We thank people around here: It’s called a paycheck,” says Bob Nelson, an employee-motivation consultant in San Diego.

The workplace ranks dead last among the places people express gratitude, from homes and neighborhoods to places of worship. Only 10% of adults say thanks to a colleague every day, and just 7% express gratitude daily to a boss, according to a survey this year of 2,007 people for the John Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, Pa., a nonprofit organization that sponsors research on creativity, gratitude, freedom and other topics.

We can admire business leaders for being tough, for being direct and never taking no for an answer when facing immense challenges, but I don’t think our expectations of their motivational abilities have to end there. Clearly there are at least two schools of thought for executives and managers on driving employees to exceptional results: 1) You can never (or almost never) express appreciation to keep employees guessing about what you think of their performance and push themselves harder; or 2) You can offer praise when it’s earned, heartfelt, and precisely the unexpected good word a dedicated employee needs to hear when a job is well done.

When praise is withheld purposefully as a tactic to prohibit an employee from becoming self-satisfied, I suppose I can see the envisioned logic in that, but that logic is flawed. When a boss is constantly lavishing praise to the point where employees simply expect it and the words no longer have impact, I can also see the potential downside, but somehow it doesn’t have me worried. Withholding appreciation for effect is seldom as intentional as some bosses would have you believe. More often it is its own form of laziness, or arrogance, or nonchalance, or unaware omission.

I fondly remember a tough water polo coach I had in high school—a league legend who went simply by the name Mr. J—who used to say, “As long as I am yelling at you from the sidelines, it means I still have faith in you and think you can do better; when I go silent, it’s because I have given up.” It took me a long time to fully interpret that message, and I get it now. First, he told us in advance why he was driving us hard, because he really cared, not so much about winning (that, too) but about pushing us to do our best. There was never a time in the pool when we were getting yelled at that this message was not in our heads. Second, anytime we did something extraordinary, as a team or an individual, he made a point of it in team meetings. So he could have it both ways—he could motivate with the stick, because we knew there was always a carrot. We also knew the stick was highly convincing play-acting, but the carrot was authentic.

Top Secret!  Courtesy - DocStocWhen I am on the job as a day-to-day operator, I make a point to meet with my direct reports weekly and my indirect reports monthly, largely for the purpose of setting and reviewing goals. I don’t at all like annual performance reviews (more on that in a future post, I promise), but what I do like is establishing agreed criteria and then constantly measuring against that, quantitatively and qualitatively. I also have a stealth agenda in these meetings, which is to find the surprise in the weekly or monthly status report, the chance to catch someone doing something right and blind side them with a few striking words of praise. You cannot imagine the impact after 55 minutes of goal regression of throwing a quiet knuckle ball at an employee along the lines of a Steve Jobs “Oh, one more thing” moment.It goes something like this: “How did you possibly find the time to _______ with everything else on your plate, and do it so creatively, and so thoughtful—do you have any idea how much an impact that had on your team and our business? Well, I do.”

I’m telling you, try it. It does not matter what level of employee you are motivating, senior management can benefit from a genuine, unprompted, thumbs up jolt just as much as those at the entry-level. Fill in that blank, put it in your own words, point out what is positive but not obvious with conviction and a nod. If you have never done this before, I assure you it will feel party time good. If your employee has never heard it before, watch the size of their eyeballs physically enlarge.

Each month when I am reviewing our team business plan against individual status reports, I pick one person who did something truly special and I send a personal email from me to her or him, no cc’s, and tell them how amazing his or her contribution was. No big bucks bonus, no gift certificate, just a brief email. That email accomplishes two things—it shows you are paying attention, and it shows you care. It buys you a grapevine of goodwill, and a good deal of room to set seemingly unrealistic stretch goals in the periods before or after. Some of you reading this have received one of these. I’ll bet you kept it. The ones I happen to have received over the years—I have kept those.

When a boss whispers, it’s a shout. When a boss shouts, it’s a scream. When a boss high fives, it can be the World Series.

I’m a not asking you to shower undeserved praise—far be it from me to let a team have reason to go soft in these challenging times, that would be inconsistent with my style. What I am suggesting is that the holidays are upon us and that is always a good milestone to say thank you. Say it often, only when it is earned, and be specific—but find a reason, if you have a great team then you have innumerable good reasons.

Yep, the season is upon us. Perhaps we needn’t let our better side be limited to such a narrow window, but at the very least, let’s try to show a little extra holiday cheer. It’s good for business, and it’s good for the people who are the business.


2 thoughts on “A Simple Secret Weapon

  1. You also have to learn how to ACCEPT a compliment or thank you. When I told a then-former boss I thought they were a good leader, my heart-felt compliment was received as brown-nosing. That stung. Since I temped for years, I worked for over 200 people. About ten were good leaders. (Interestingly, a smaller number were truly bad – and most were ultimately fired.)

    I received my first lessons in leadership and management when I was 8 – something I doubt the ex-boss knew – so that by adulthood, evaluating leadership and management ability (separate issues) was second nature. But the apparent assumption was that I didn’t know enough to really evaluate leadership ability. That reaction told me more about how I and my skills were truly viewed – as a temp / secretary, nothing more – than I really wanted to know. Some of it is on me for not talking more about my real knowledge, skills, background, etc – but that boss’s reaction, combined with a few past experiences, have led me to a point where I will not deliberately compliment a boss on their actions, skills, whatever. My experience shows that the best-case reaction is indifference, but an assumption of brown-nosing is faaaaar more likely.

    So, to reiterate, if your employees compliment you, they probably mean it, and it probably wasn’t the easiest thing to say because of fears of brown-nosing. If they are a brown-noser, you probably know it from other things. And don’t assume they don’t know what they are talking about. Ask them why, if you are curious – AFTER you acknowledge it – because you may learn something you didn’t know about their background. I wish my former boss had asked why instead of apparently assuming it was just because I liked working for them.

    Not that it matters, but Lucille Martin is my favorite ex-boss, and she can’t lead a damn thing. But she didn’t need to in her job, and I liked her. Besides, having “my own office” on the 6th floor of Team Disney was cool. (The popcorn office – very closet like, but with giant windows overlooking the daycare.)


  2. You got it! Graciousness is a core value for life and business. A sense of value inspires.

    Love your Mr. J story– inspiration is a paradox. There is a line from “The
    Descendants”, where Clooney says, “Everything has its time.” I recall when struggling with Aikido training for black belt. My bud Bobby reminded, “Now is your time to get yelled at.” Everything has its time. My bud John King says what you get what you measure for. We should measure for greatness…


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