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Don’t reach for the stars

Sep, 9 – BY MEGAN CAULFIELD – The goal was simple. Spell the words correctly and the gold star was mine. Get it right the next week and I’d be looking at two stars.

Being slightly competitive I underwent a strict training regime. Work was taken home for evening review. Flash cards were created and poured over in alphabetical order. Invitations were repeatedly offered to test my spelling prowess.

You may think this rather excessive behaviour all for a simple sticker. But a recent HBR study reported in this week’s New York Times made me reflect on whether the goal of my primary school spelling bees was really a star or something more.

Research conducted by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of “The Progress Principle”, asked 669 managers from companies around the world to rank five employee motivators in terms of importance. They ranked “supporting progress” last. But recognising progress in meaningful work was identified in the study as the primary motivator amongst employees. Even more than incentives like raises and bonuses.

In working with organisations on their Employee Value Propositions (EVPs), we often hear of new and improved formal recognition programs. Of course it’s critical to have the right processes in place to recognise employees going above and beyond. But it’s not awards or incentives that will mobilise the efforts of all employees in a sustainable way.

In the end it comes down to employee engagement and how good managers are at having the day-to-day conversations with their people. It’s about knowing the right questions to ask. It’s about listening, finding out what a person is working on and talking through any challenges. It’s sometimes as simple as saying hello and asking the person how they’re feeling.

Pretty simple stuff. But for many managers such behaviour may not come naturally. Or other things take priority and time becomes the excuse.

In my experience, there’s an opportunity for organisations to do more. It doesn’t have to be formal manager training as such. Highlight through your internal communication channels the business benefit of happy, motivated employees; reinforce their responsibilities in supporting their team and outline different things they can do to show their people they care.

In the end, no matter how old we are, we all want to be noticed for doing a good job. For me, as a ten year old there was nothing better than seeing my parents’ faces when I showed off my stars. That’s the driver. Not the stars.