Written by Bevin Theodore

Anyone can be a leader. All it takes is a passion for extraordinary results. But deciding to be an exemplary leader is only the first step to becoming one. So how will YOU do it? In “The Leadership Challenge,” James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner outline the characteristics and frequent behaviors of exemplary leaders. Presented as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, the behaviors provide a roadmap to help leaders build trust, engage their teams and achieve shared success. In the previous blogs, we discuss the other practices, “Model the Way”, “Inspire a Shared Vision”, “Challenge the Process”, and “Enable Others to Act”.  This blog, the last in a five-part series, focuses on the practice “Encourage the Heart.”

No news is good news, right?

Well, not always, and especially not in the workplace. You might think that your employees know they are doing a suitable job since you accept their work stoically and have never told them it needed to be re-done. Maybe no one ever lavished you with praise when you were working your way through the ranks, and you are doing just fine for yourself today. While it is true that you shouldn’t throw a party just because your team showed up to work, human beings thrive on personal connections and like to be recognized for going above and beyond.

I once visited a juvenile justice facility to learn about its day-to-day operations and better understand how it fits into our larger multi-site operation. The center was one of the few major employers in a very rural area, and the staff was comprised of longtime dedicated employees who had worked there for decades as well as an influx of young adults who had grown up in the area and were looking for their first jobs. It was grueling work – long hours and difficult clients, most of whom had mental health issues in addition to adjudications. But the staff emanated a sense of pride as they led visitors around the facility and bragged about the breakthroughs some of the teen clients had experienced.

In many of the staff areas, I noticed paper certificates adorning the walls. Each was made out to a specific person and had a title such as “best floor sweeper,” “cheerleader” and “master of the coffee machine.” The director explained that one of his employees had started making them up when he noticed someone who did something outside the scope of his job, such as clean up a spill, swap shifts with a colleague or stay late after a shift to spending extra time talking with a client having a challenging time. Some of the awards were silly; others heartfelt, but the staff loved them and displayed them proudly, and more people started finding opportunities to present them to colleagues. When my visit ended, I was awarded a certificate for writing stories to highlight the excellent work employees were doing across the organization. That piece of paper hung in my office until I moved on from that job, a daily reminder of the importance to recognize others in the workplace.

The reward certificates were such a minor way to praise people for a job well done and show appreciation for their dedication. They fostered a sense of unity among the staff and garnered some laughs. When you think of ways to creatively reward your team, you want to ensure the recognition is observable. When you take time in a staff meeting, or during a special gathering, to recognize contributions, you are boosting morale, demonstrating the importance of everyone staying committed to shared values and showing your team that work is not only drudgery. The clear goals you have already established for your team provide a framework of opportunities to celebrate important milestones. But be creative too, and find ways throughout the course of projects to showcase accomplishments.

Recognition says, “I see you, and I appreciate what you are doing.”   For more insights into appreciation, see Gary Chapman’s book: The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.  It does not take a lot of time or a budget to recognize your employees. Start small by becoming more cognizant of how often you thank people. Those two words, when spoken genuinely, make others feel appreciated and more inclined to continue working hard. During team meetings, instead of just running through the laundry list of updates and project reports, try incorporating a few minutes to give a shout out to someone who has done something extraordinary that week. Think about ways you can recognize innovative thinking, not just bottom-line results because the purpose of Encouraging the Heart is to show people you believe in their abilities and are grateful to have them. Recognition should be specific, timely and celebrate personal contributions. Just as we talked about in terms of Enabling Others to Act, you need to get to know your employees to understand how they like to be recognized. And remember, praise does not always have to come from the top. Sometimes it means even more if one colleague recognizes another for an accomplishment, fostering a team spirit and a culture of having fun at work.

But isn’t that why the company gives raises and bonuses, to recognize people for working hard? Research has shown that these formal reward systems only go so far because what people really want is to know that they are valued. Be creative with incentives, and make them as personal as you can. One employee might appreciate being taken to lunch, another might like to have a few hours off and another might enjoy hanging a goofy award above his desk. If you are looking to reward your entire team, you can create employee appreciation days, set up monthly breakfasts to give team members a chance to chat before getting down to work or organize occasional after-work outings. When people play together, they form bonds that carry over into their work. Even taking a meeting outside or finding a few moments to laugh or ask how someone’s weekend went a long way toward forging bonds.

Feedback has gotten a negative connotation, but praise is feedback. The “no news is good news” approach has a deadly effect on your team, creating an environment in which employees fear you are not happy with their performance. We all spend so many hours each week at work. Make sure that you are helping to make it an environment where people feel connected and valued.

Are you ready to “Encourage the Heart”?  Learn all 5 Practices of Exemplary Leadership and the supporting behaviors.  Join Northstar Women leaders for the first Leadership Challenge exclusively for women coming soon.  Or hold a workshop at your organization to teach your leaders The Leadership Challenge. Claim your seat at the table by registering online.