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Beyond Insurance

A little appreciation goes a long way

Forget the carrot and the stick; just say "thank you" and mean it

By Christin Myers

Before joining Addis Intellectual Capital as director of training and coaching, I spent most of my career conducting interviews, first as a staffing supervisor and then building the exit interview division of a restaurant consulting company. Over 10 years and thousands of interviews, I've learned that what employees want more than money, promotion, or anything else is simply to feel valued.

The business case for recognition

The supporting research is abundant. Researchers Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton in the July 8, 2004, issue of Gallup Business Journal, quoted a U.S. Department of Labor study showing that the number one reason people leave their jobs is that they “do not feel appreciated.” Rath and Clifton say a study conducted by the Gallup Organization on more than 10,000 business units found that individuals who receive regular recognition and praise “increase their individual productivity, increase engagement among their colleagues, are more likely to stay with their organization, receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers, and have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job.”

Josh Bersin of the research and advisory firm Bersin & Associates, in the June 13, 2012, issue of Forbes magazine described the results of a study on employee recognition, which showed that “organizations that give regular thanks to their employees far outperform those that don't.” Bersin also noted, “Companies that scored in the top 20% for building a recognition-rich culture actually had 31% lower voluntary turnover rates!”

It's hard to believe that something as simple as recognition can have such a positive impact on both top-line and bottom-line results. You may be thinking: “We've got this covered; we have an Employee of the Month program, and we recognize people on their anniversaries.”

Not so fast. Bersin & Associates found that “tenure-based reward systems have virtually no impact on organizational performance.”

And Paul Marciano, author of Carrots and Sticks Don't Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT, says that Employee of the Month programs are actually counterproductive. “The trouble is, they require you to keep winding up the employee to get the desired uptick in behavior. While you may get short-term changes in effort, it doesn't last because the behavior is driven by the extrinsic reward . . . in fact, there is an inverse relationship between the value of the reward and extent to which an individual takes pride in their work.”

Marciano notes further that when you put a carrot program in place, only the top performers win. The impact on the poor performers is nonexistent or even negative. “The program is just another example of their 'loser' status in your organization.”

Developing a recognition-rich culture requires a shift in perspective and behavior. How do you demonstrate to your team members that you value and appreciate them? To start, I suggest three steps: Be grateful, be specific, and be attentive.

Be grateful

Never underestimate the power of a handwritten note or a heartfelt handshake. I've heard countless stories about how much thoughtful notes of appreciation from a company or team leader have meant to employees. Employees often keep these notes for years, proudly displaying them in their work areas or taking them home to show family members. A warm handshake from a leader recognizing a staff member's contribution is equally priceless.

Many employees are willing to go the extra mile when they know they are valued. Did someone stay late to help with a project? Did a team member jump over several hurdles to take care of a valuable client? Their efforts may have come at a high personal cost, and your grateful recognition of their work will be well received.

Public expressions of gratitude can also be powerful, not only for the person receiving the praise but for the rest of the audience as well. Others are more likely to go the extra mile when they know they will be recognized and appreciated. An important caveat: This can backfire if the praise is not genuine or if you're showing appreciation to someone who really doesn't like public attention (see below on being attentive).

Be specific

Which message would you rather receive? “Thanks for all you do,” or “Thank you for the way you so carefully handled the Jones account. It was a really difficult renewal, and you communicated clearly with all involved every step of the way. I appreciate your diligence in making sure our client's needs were met in such a professional manner.” A little specificity goes a long way.

When you are clear about what behaviors earn your appreciation, you reinforce the behaviors you'd like to encourage.

Being clear also makes it easier to provide specific feedback on what an employee can be doing better. As mentioned in the September 1, 2009, Inc.magazine article by Nadine Heintz, “If you say thank you all the time, even when people do mediocre work, you won't build an environment where people handle criticism better.” On the flip side, if your feedback is sincere, you can share both praise and criticism in a way that employees will value.

Be attentive

Employees feel valued when their supervisors pay attention. When you know that an employee has a son or daughter who is a high school senior, ask what the student's college or work plans are for the next year. When a staff member loses a parent, touch base periodically to see how the family is doing. It doesn't take much time to show you care, and it can have a powerful, positive impact on both morale and performance.

If you decide to give an employee a gift, choose carefully! Baseball tickets won't be a hit with someone who doesn't care about the game, and a basket of cheeses is not a good choice for someone who is lactose intolerant. Gratitude turns to dismay when an employee discovers that you spelled his or her name wrong on your thank-you note. Paying attention to employees' interests and hobbies will provide the clues you need to choose the right gift, like movie tickets for a film buff or a gift card to a local nursery for a dedicated gardener.

For some employees, the best token of appreciation might be the afternoon off on a summer Friday!

Pay attention to how people respond when you show appreciation. Some people will be delighted with a gift card while others just want a personal thank you for their efforts. A recent study by the International Association of Administrative Professionals and Office Team found that “managers ranked promotions and cash bonuses as the two most effective ways of recognizing employee accomplishments, but workers said they preferred an in-person thank you or having a job well done reported to senior management.” A demonstration of appreciation is a gift; note how the recipient responds to the gift you give.

The evidence is clear: when employees feel appreciated, morale rises, retention increases, and performance soars. Demonstrate your appreciation by being grateful, specific, and attentive.

The author

Christin Myers is director of training and coaching at Addis Intellectual Capital, a coaching and consulting company whose purpose is to transform the process that independent agents, brokers and carriers use when working with their clients. Christin can be reached at or (610) 945-1021.


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