Why small is beautiful when it comes to workplace rewards

15 November 2011 -


Everyday gestures of decency towards staffers can go a long way to engaging their enthusiasm and sealing their loyalty

Bonuses. Award schemes. The office Christmas party: Almost every organisation has at least one of these sweeteners to recognise good work and break up the monotony of the day-to-day grind. Requiring organisation and a dedicated portion of the budget, managers would be forgiven for thinking that these efforts alone tell employers that they are recognised and appreciated. Yet, as in romance, it is the little things that count.

Gestures can be physical or verbal. Gestures are real actions, conscious and semi-conscious, that have the potential to change a business, reinforce a culture and make employees – and clients – react in a positive way.

Steve Harrison, chairman of Lee Hecht Harrison talent development, says that the key to the long-term success of any company is the nurture of its culture. His book, The Manager’s Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies, focuses on actions that require no training – and no cost. He says: “[I was interested in] why some companies manage to ensure people are committed to their company and stay productive – giving rather than taking from the people that they work for. Everything managers say and do function to maintain a positive, productive culture and make people feel valued.”

Brushing up on communication

Harrison cites examples of managers who view their business as not just a profit-making vehicle, but as a way of life. A great example, he says, is Reuben Mark, former chief executive of pharmaceutical giant Colgate-Palmolive. Mark was boss of a huge company, but still paid attention to small details. Harrison found that Mark ascribes his company’s success to the fact that, when speaking to anyone, he goes to great lengths to ensure his colleagues’ achievements or ideas are not perceived as his own. Mark knew that his words, in public and behind the scenes, had a lasting effect on his employees.

The further you go up the ladder, the more the words you say, the things you do, even the way you wear your clothes, are read by colleagues. This phenomenon is known as executive amplification. Linda Hudson, now chief executive of global defence and security company BAE Systems, learned this when she became division president of General Dynamics – all of a sudden, she found that her every action was being analysed, from her words on leadership to the way she tied her scarf. Self-conscious at first, she soon realised the enormous power this gave her to connect with her staff.

Providing “everyday positives”

Actions create lasting connections that are vital for staff loyalty. Most often, a handwritten note is cited as an effective gesture by consultants, psychologists and – most importantly – by the people who receive them. How differently would you perceive a birthday card if it were typed by the sender? Handwriting stands out in this fast-paced virtual world against the stream of stock fonts that flood our eyes all day, every day. The time element is vital. Employees and clients will assume a business has the budget for grand parties and fancy gifts, but they will know you are time-poor. A note says: “I have taken the time to write this to you.”

Small gestures add a vital and powerful human element to your management style. Get to know a little about your staff’s lives: remember a milestone marriage anniversary, ask how their children are getting on at school, acknowledge a recent achievement. Dr Robert Brooks, a psychologist and co-author of The Power of Resilience, says this appreciation has a great impact: “There is research indicating that everyday stress and hassle does more to wear an employee down than a major crisis. The same principle applies to everyday positives.” Plus, learning what is important to employees individually will not only boost employee esteem, it will make you more connected to your workforce as a human being, in turn making you more aware and satisfied as a manager.

“The effect created by these subtle touches cannot be measured quantitatively,” Harrison emphasises. “But I believe the very fact that the companies that feature in my book are all in Fortune 100’s Best Companies to Work For list, and are cited as the most innovative and admired companies in the world, is no coincidence.”

Gesture rights and wrongs

Name game

Steve Harrison, chairman of Lee Hecht Harrison, tells us his favourite example of a small gesture that reaped great rewards. While on a tour of the office, the manager in question introduced Harrison to the receptionist – except she wasn’t the receptionist, she was the “Director of First Impressions”, according to her business card. The value of what she did day-to-day was expressed in her job title, ensuring she felt proud of her role and valued by the organisation.

Pat attack

A chummy hand between the shoulder blades can create a great atmosphere in the office, but it can also be a bit of a minefield. Pat too hard and you’ll bring up the recipient’s lunch, too gentle and they might think you’re just brushing something off their shirt, leading to a lifetime of paranoia and looking over their shoulder in the mirror. Also, beware doing this in Thailand – it is considered rather rude.

When gifts go wrong

Sometimes effective, often just plain useless, some promotional gifts are downright terrible ideas. One funeral company felt it was appropriate to hand out mugs bearing their logo to mourners at the end of a service.

Powered by Professional Manager