In a recent study of 1,500 employees from across the work spectrum, when asked about the factors that kept them motivated, 87% of the participants included the words "recognition" and "reward."  To add to this, what has been shown to be most effective in motivating employees aren't rewards or compensations made by the company at-large, but rather encouragement and recognition initiated directly by the manager or supervisor.  

Catherine Meek, President of Meek & Associates, says: "In the 20 years I have been doing this and the thousands of employees I have interviewed, if I had to pick one thing that comes to me loud and clear it would be that organizations do a lousy job of recognizing people's contributions.  That is the number one thing employees say to us: 'We don't even care about the money.  If my boss would just say thank you.'"

I know that this can feel like a weighty responsibility.  "I'm already responsible for all these other things – now I have to be in charge of morale, too?!"  The short answer is: yes.  The truth is, managers are responsible for workplace morale (which is something that will be the subject of future posts).

Consider the results of a study where participants were asked to sit at a desk and circle the letter “A” whenever it appeared on a series of written pages.  For every page they completed the participant would receive money, but they would receive $0.25 less for each subsequent completed page.  For example, if they received $2 for the first page, they would receive $1.75 for the second, $1.50 for the next, and so on.  The money was placed on the table in front of them as they worked.

  • For Group 1, the experimenter would receive each page as the participant completed it, look it over, and then give a word of encouragement, such as “Good job,” or “That looks great,” and then hand them the next page. 
  • For Group 2, the experimenter received each page, didn’t look at it, and offered no expression or word of encouragement, then handed the participant their next page. 
  • For Group 3, the experimenter received the page with no encouragement, ran the page through a paper shredder, then handed the participant their next page. 

The results? 

As you might expect, Group 1 (who received a word of praise or thanks) completed more pages than any other group.  How many more?  On average, participants from this group actually submitted more pages than there was money!  In other words: they actually volunteered to do at least some of this meaningless and boring work, knowing they wouldn't be compensated!

Group 2, who received no encouragement, did far fewer pages. In fact, most of these folks quit working before the money even ran out and left it sitting, unearned, on the table.

And Group 3 – the participants who watched their work get shredded in front of them – completed the exact same number of pages as Group 2.  

The take-away is this: if you want to de-motivate your employees, you don’t even have to destroy their work in front of them – you simply have to withhold simple recognition and thanks for the work they've done.  

So how do we provide encouragement and recognition?  It's easy: 

  • Send a quick one-on-one email containing only a “thank you” for something an employee did well, for extra effort or quality can be anything!  Don't include any other information or requests in the email – keep it to words of recognition or thanks.
  • Give specific verbal praise, even for expected good work: “Joan, that presentation yesterday was great – it was really clear and the PowerPoint was simple but engaging.  Great job!” 
  • Occasionally use hand written notes and cards, as opposed to email, for words of thanks.  Studies show that the impact will be greater.  
  • Brag about your employees to others.  Word will get around. 
  • Ask them for their ideas, opinions, advice and feedback.  Tell them you value what they have to offer.  When they do offer, say, "That's great - I hadn't thought of that."  
  •  Tell an employee that she brings unique qualities and dynamics to the table - that she adds value to the team in specific ways.  People like to feel special and valuable.
  • Just say thank you.  And mean it.  

Providing encouragement and recognition doesn't have to be complicated or time/resource intensive.  It does have to be intentional. 

NOTE: Boosting and maintaining morale is accomplished through practicing the Top 15 Management Skills I've mentioned before.  Rewarding and recognizing your employees is just one of the skills important to managing a positive and effective workplace.