A Simple Thanks Will Suffice

A senior manager sits quietly in the vice-president’s office, waiting to get an earful from her boss. He is livid because two of their most valuable employees left to work for the competition.
The manager might have known more about why but so many tasks prevented her from checking in how employees were doing. In this business there is simply no time for informal niceties.
She might have known more but the bulk of their contact was spent fixing problems, leaving no time to discuss things like successes. She could have had better insight into what would make them happy, what their ideas and values were, but meetings had to be spent providing direction and instruction. She had hoped to get their input, just as soon as these big projects were off her plate, but they never seemed to be. Now here she sits having to explain what went wrong. She only hears from him when something goes wrong, but she does so many great things. If his approach is poor she may leave too. Is it any wonder what the problem is?

Employee recognition and engagement is a valuable corporate strategy and not merely in stemming turnover. There is value in employee engagement far beyond retaining valued employees.
While engaging and recognizing employee contributions has a great impact, a far more profound impact is not doing so. Lack of recognition produces one of the most menacing of organizational outcomes — people who are paid 100% of their salary but working at only 60% of their capacity, and management not recognizing it.
Common complaints by employees include, “The boss only pays attention when there is something wrong.” “I can do 50 things well and I never hear about it. But when something goes wrong, I hear about it excessively.” Then there is, “I wouldn’t mind negative feedback so much if it was balanced with positive,” or “I care so little about this work because I am bored and uninvolved.” The lack of recognition or engagement can be a major cause of dissatisfaction, resentment and high employee turnover.

To make matters worse, managers and supervisors frequently misdiagnose a perceived lack of engagement as a bad attitude or a lack of skills. Such assessments can lead supervisors to try to improve performance through accusations, heavy-handed management tactics and even threats of termination. The problem is such approaches rarely work, more often backfiring by disengaging employees further. The problem lies not with the employee but with the skills of managers and supervisors, as well as with the organization’s approach to recognition and engagement.
Clearly, one major responsibility of managers is to manage people. Managing people does not begin with managing policies, ideas, paper or even processes. It begins with the actions of management, not with those of employees. For example, managers find that when they do something as simple as check in midway through a project, they discover problems that can be fixed before the deadline. But because managers feel it is not their responsibility to check in, they miss out on the chance to impact results beyond putting out fires. They are willing to let things go wrong because they don’t feel they should have to be the ones to set things right. This approach is not proactive or responsible.

Ultimately, recognition is about managers seeing beyond their own interests and recognizing that the ability to count on staff is not just about trading work for a paycheque. People are dynamic, complicated and have needs that transcend exchanging work for money. Many employees want to be involved, they want a sense of purpose and knowledge of their results and to work with people they like. The key in managing such needs is involvement and engagement. Little things such as asking an employee’s opinion, explaining the objectives of a project so he or she understands its importance and informing him or her of the work’s outcome are simple ways to enhance involvement.
Engagement is largely about ensuring employees’ butts and heads are in the same place. Lack of recognition can prevent this engagement. When people are not recognized for their accomplishments or are ignored by their supervisors, they become pre-occupied with what they are not getting. This preoccupation will take energy and time from their jobs. As well, this dissatisfaction may rub off on others through gossip and complaints. Employees will confide in peers, other managers and even clients when they are disengaged. This can result in a bad impression of the organization, impacting its business and ability to attract new talent.
So what is the solution? While many organizations spend time and money developing formal employee recognition programs and engagement procedures, the most successful methods are simple and inexpensive. In fact, the most crucial ones usually cost nothing. For employees, recognition covers everything from having their work and efforts noticed to the seemingly mundane greeting or asking about their family, weekend or interests. Often, in a frenetic work environment managers forgo such simple forms of recognition. Also many workplaces emphasize problem-solving, so little time is spent talking to employees about their successes, positive outcomes and their lives outside work.
Monetary rewards should not be offered for meeting a tight deadline or solving a problem. After all, such tasks are part of the job. However, employees should be recognized for meeting that challenge. Often a verbal thank you does the trick. If a manager is not informally thanking his or her staff at least two or three times a month, it’s a missed opportunity to motivate employees. While simple forms of recognition may seem unnecessary, the absence of such gestures sends a strong message to employees that affects commitment, loyalty and level of engagement.
Some managers feel that because they don’t need recognition, or never get it, others don’t need it either. Such thinking is problematic. People are different, and being a good leader is about adapting to the diverse needs of followers. People should be managed based on what is, not what should be. If a manager experiences a lack of recognition, he or she should learn from experience and offer employees what he or she has missed out on.
While managers may not hear about the absence of recognition gestures, they can be sure the topic is brought up around the proverbial water cooler. Employee perceptions and gossip can produce untrue assumptions about a boss’s character that could harm a reputation and a career.
Far too many senior managers use such words as “collaborative,” “cooperative” and “teamwork,” but given the opportunity to exercise these values, they default to telling employees what will be done. People are more likely to buy in to initiatives and actions they are involved in than those dictated to them. That’s the true value of engagement — it creates buy-in, commitment, loyalty and excellence because people want to be part of what they do.
This can be as simple as asking what the employee thinks or for suggestions. Again, the pace of organizational life makes it seem more efficient to tell people what to do. Talking teamwork but not doing so can disengage employees so that any time saved by dictating will be lost in employee disinterest.
Sometimes, managers think employees’ views have no value and they know best. However, asking employees what they think can raise a manager’s credibility. Just because you ask, does not mean you have to do what employees suggest — the magic is considering others’ opinions.
If you want employees to stick around, try simple approaches. In the best case, you might find employees provide a new perspective; at worst, you will be seen as thoughtful and considerate.


When we try to characterize great leadership we might be inclined to use words like influential, assertive or visionary. Intuitively, most believe that these types of personality characteristics are the most necessary for credible and effective leadership. But as I often discover in my work with organizations, the “followers” of leaders look to other qualities. One of the most often cited of these is the seeming antithesis of credibility – humility. 
Is humility – the ability to admit shortcomings, to be unpretentious and modest – a quality you would normally think of when characterizing a great leader? Possibly not, but employees are consistently dismayed by leaders who do not solicit the views of others “below” them and who always think that they are right. Of course, know-it-all leaders never hear of this. The very nature of an immodest leader would prevent employees from voicing this view, as standing up and telling the boss their wrong is still (even in our enlightenment) seen as career limiting. Even if someone did have the chutzpah to challenge an arrogant boss, they would have trouble hearing it as something they could learn from or even as a viable perspective. But rest assure, you will get more input, initiative and loyalty from leadership which openly admits that they don’t have the answers than from that which shuts down alternative views and projects constant greatness. 
While working on a succession plan for a mid-sized manufacturing organization, I conducted interviews with employees, as well as mid level and senior management. I wanted to get an idea of what great leadership has been like in the organization so they can develop junior employees for more senior roles in the future. I expected that the most frequently cited and highest ranking qualities would be those which spoke to decisiveness, having the answers and great influence. While the notion of influence was highlighted by many, the preferred and most effective route was through humility. 
Employees discussed stories of great, inspirational leadership as being characterized by actions like not being afraid to do the grunt work, admitting that they may not have all the answers and being open to the views of others. While to some, establishing leadership credibility means never (or at least infrequently) backing down, employees at this gritty manufacturing plant did not see it that way. 
In fact, in my experience across many organizations, employees at every level prefer leadership that is seen as fair and equitable and this cannot be realized without some level of humility. This notion is particularly important in organizations which are struggling with attracting and retaining great, new talent. In these contexts we certainly want to have talent that looks to leaders’ experience for guidance and learning. But leadership which is seen as know-it-all, stubborn, closed and arrogant constantly turns people off. I mean, does anyone really want this kind of leader? Don’t we want a balance between learning from others and offering one’s own view? Is this balance not the place where we hone the skills of potential leaders? The good news is that the notion of humble leadership is alive in a number of organizations, but some leaders have been slow on the uptake. 
In a business environment that sings the praises of knowledge management, learning and growth we are certainly ready to learn from people at all points in an organization, not just from the top. We may need to take a page from the wisdom of (some) parenting experiences which remind us of how much we have to learn about ourselves and the world from those who we might otherwise step over as too young or inexperienced. 

Connect for Success

Many of us may have already discovered that our education, credentials, knowledge and skills are crucial components of getting ahead in our careers. But fewer have discovered that these components, while important, are not enough. Your degree, skills and experience can make for great resume material but do not always open doors. So, what is missing? In my experience working with hundreds of job searchers, business students and others looking to enhance or change their careers, the missing ingredient is the ability to make oneself stand out. This skill not only enhances one’s ability to get that hot job, but can also be applied to life on the job – persuasion, buy-in and credibility all depend upon your ability to get noticed. 
Now, when we talk about standing out, we are not necessarily talking about being better than another, having more experience than another or even being smarter or more talented than another. The truth is that in the competition for jobs, there will be many with the experience, credentials, skills and brains that you have. So, counting solely on those elements may not be in your best interest. Instead, just as is the case in all aspects of business, it is the relationships we develop with others that will make us stand out, get attention and get opportunities.
The notion that business is about relationships is not a new one. But few see the application this notion has to one’s career advancement. The evidence can be seen in the way many of us apply for positions – relying on job posting sites, the electronic forwarding of resumes and waiting for a reply. This is not the stuff of human relationships and given that hundreds, sometimes thousands of others are doing the same thing, you may not stand out. 
Many of the most interesting, lucrative and rewarding jobs actually come from what I refer to as the hidden job market. This is when job searchers, organizations and recruiters use their networks to find people. In fact, I have seen only a small handful of jb opportunities come purely from responding to a job posting. The vast majority include one’s ability to tap into a network of friends, family and peers. 
There are a number of reasons why many do not tap into their network. First off, some have messed up their network by burning bridges, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes due to arrogance or an inability to recognize its value. Secondly, many are afraid to tap into it because they don’t want to be seen as opportunistic, or don’t want to “bother” someone they may not know that well. Finally, many just don’t know how. 
Even if you have burned bridges, it is never too late to start over. Attend industry events and utilize people you know to begin to re-establish your network. Maybe get a career coach or recruiter who can help you with some new contacts. Approach these people as someone who wants to learn about them, as opposed to someone who wants to talk about themselves and you might be surprised at what comes back to you. 
Again, some are reluctant to approach others altogether. Indeed, this “approach” can bring about a fear of rejection or imposition on another. But, without this risk, you will not stand out. Often the fear comes from not knowing what to say or ask. Try focusing on learning about that person, their job, career path and experience as opposed to asking for a job. People are more likely to want to meet with you and talk to you when you are focused on learning about them. This takes some of the pressure off and can help both people discover opportunities. This way, even if there is no job, they might know someone who knows someone, and so on. As well, if you don’t want to be seen as opportunistic, don’t be opportunistic! In other words, stay in touch with those in your network for reasons other than opportunities for you. 
This may seem a daunting task if you think about it as having ongoing, deep and personal relationships with 150 different people. But finding innovative ways of maintaining contact can do the trick. For example, if you are looking to get ahead in the marketing industry, try to find interesting news or perspectives in the press and share it with those you know in the industry as a gesture of shared learning. Also, try sending handwritten holiday cards to those in your network or take the initiative to host an event or party for some selected people in your network. 
Finding ways to tap into and utilize your social network can indeed be the thing that differentiates you from others. It also can help to hone the skills influence and credibility that helps while on the job. It is truly the best way to connect for success. 

Why are we doing these anyway (performance appraisals)?

We may dread them and we may put them off for as long as we can, but in many organizations, January is performance appraisal time. Weather they are called employee evaluations, employee appraisals or some cryptic acronym, their accuracy and usefulness are often questioned. Given that in many cases they just have to be done (it’s our policy ya know), we best figure out a way to ensure that the time we spend on them is productive. 
The most profound challenge with performance appraisals concerns their usefulness. Every year at this time I hear complaints from managers and employees alike regarding how useless they are given the amount of time spent on them. Like anything we spend time on, we need to feel that time spent is going somewhere. In other words, if I am doing it I need to know why. 
This is precisely the problem. In many organizations, if you ask around, most will not know why they are done, other than because they always have been. And in organizations where being accountable for the time we spend on all work activities is valued, this just does not make sense. 
There are essentially three purposes of performance appraisals: employee development, administrative record keeping, and to determine promotions and salary changes. Now, we certainly need to keep records of performance and we certainly can utilize an assessment of performance for promotion and salary issues. But, when it comes to employee development, many of the forms we use and the way we use them do not serve to improve performance or to develop employees at all. In fact, they can have the opposite effect. This is because the way they are set up makes them nothing more than a judgment of performance, an exercise in evaluation for its own sake, as well as a source of conflict and defensiveness.
In order for any evaluation to be developmental, is has be forward looking, not backward gazing. But most appraisals look at the past and then give a judgment or a score. Most stop there. They usually do not include the essential step of providing direction on how to fix or improve things that did not go well. Nor do they provide goals for someone to reach. 
Telling an employee that they “performed at a poorly or adequately” in specific areas does not improve performance. Instead, it frequently brings about a debate regarding the truth of the assessment. This “search for the truth” occupies the time and energy of both parties and the discussion will not focus on improvement for the future, but instead on who is right, who is wrong, and whose “fault” something in the past was.  Sometimes, when employees are uncomfortable getting into a debate, they keep their disagreement to themselves and become resentful and angry at the inaccuracy and can become disengaged as a result. 
Any effective appraisal process must also include a clear set of goals outlined at the beginning of the year. Without these, employees can find that they are surprised by specific evaluations. For example, a “poor” rating on teamwork, based on feedback the boss received 6 months ago, leaves the employee wondering why this was not brought up when the situation occurred. It also leaves them wondering what on earth can do about this now that 6 months has passed. They feel set up for a “poor” rating. They may also not know what really counts in terms of their performance until they are rated on that aspect of performance. This approach is not developmental, but purely evaluative and punitive.    
Probably the best approach to managing these challenges is to develop a process which aims to manage performance and development employees through the setting of goals and objectives at the beginning of the year, and then to look at the extent to which these goals were met at the end of the year.  At the front end, goals can be spelled out in terms of defined, measurable actions with time lines. At the back end, we can see if the goals were met and if the defined actions were done. If not, additional goals and actions can be proposed, becoming some of the goals for the next year. 
A simple model like this one can help to create performance appraisals which actually do something, not just ones that say something.