In preparation for First Break All the Rules, Gallup performed thousands of interviews of managers and employees to determine the primary motivators for employees. When they asked managers about the most powerful motivator, they answered, not surprisingly, that it was money.
When they asked employees at all levels of highly diverse organizations, they got a different and very consistent message. Since that initial study, I have seen several others, the latest by Harvard Business School in 2008. Every study reports essentially the same results: The number one motivator for employees is appreciation and recognition.
The studies I have seen take both appreciation and recognition as more or less the same thing. My own anecdotal research shows a major difference. Recognition is an event. It is winning the Employee of the Month award, or having a cake and flowers delivered on your birthday.
Appreciation, on the other hand, is a process rather than an event. It is ongoing, and non-specific. It is the acknowledgement that the organization is glad to have you as a member simply because you are you. We tend, as leaders of organizations, to be better at recognition than we are at appreciation. When asked why, I had a group of CEOs reflect on whether they were recognized or appreciated by their fathers. Most could clearly identify moments of recognition. Few could recall feeling appreciated.
Several years ago, I learned a technique to remind me to appreciate…to show personal interest in each of my employees. A consultant I had hired to fix my employees gave me a stack of 10 bright, shiny pennies. She said I was to put them in my left hand pants pocket each morning. Each time I spoke personally to an employee, I was to move a penny to my right hand pants pocket. The rule was that I could not leave the office until 10 pennies were in my right hand pocket.
I carried those pennies for three months. In the beginning, I found myself getting very busy about four o’clock in the afternoon. As time passed, I found that I was more naturally connecting at all times throughout the day, making sure that I engaged people in personal conversation. Mostly, those were not deep, investigative, probing conversations. They were simply acknowledgement that I recognized the people who worked with and for me as individuals.
The results were astounding. The feedback I got from my top executives and managers was that people were recognizing my change of attitude. They were feeling more at home in our chaotic turnaround environment, and were more forthcoming with ideas for improvement.
Much more importantly, I was enjoying myself more. Rather than isolating myself, and trying to fix every problem, I opened myself (and the organization) to input from every level. Today, when my clients complain about a negative atmosphere in their companies, I hand them stack of bright, shiny new pennies.