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North Central Business Journal News

(September 2001 issue)

by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.

     The complaint employees make most often about their supervisors is that “they never appreciate me.”  This occurs because there is a common tendency among Americans is to notice negative things rather than positive things.  This is particularly true of people in oversight positions, such as supervisors or managers.  They immediately notice when employees make mistakes, but are less observant when things are going well.  This leads to negative comments and very few positive comments, which is why employees perceive a lack of appreciation.

     Research on the differences between highly effective managers and adequate managers finds that one of the major differences is how often managers compliment employees.  Highly effective managers find something positive to say about their employees almost daily; adequate managers do so less frequently.

     Non-exceptional managers often say to me, “doing a good job is what my employees are paid to do; why should I give them a swelled head for doing what they are paid to do?”  These managers seem to believe that they should compliment only exceptional employees, and even then the compliments should be sparingly applied for fear of creating excessive egotism.  But very few people are prone to excessive egotism.  Most people benefit from others noticing when they do things well. 

     While payment is a form of reward, it is a weak reinforcer.  Compliments are powerful reinforcers.  Employees who are complimented by their supervisors tend to out-perform those whose work is not complimented.  Since compliments do not increase the overhead costs of a company, they are an inexpensive yet highly effective way to improve productivity, and have the side benefit of enhancing morale.

     Managers who wish to be highly effective can train themselves to deliver this powerful form of reinforcement.  The first step in this self-training is to intentionally notice all that their employees are doing.   One of the reasons why non-exceptional managers tend to focus on negatives is that negatives are actually rare.  When we see something all the time, we tend to be habituated and stop “seeing” it.  To counteract that tendency to habituate to the positive, managers need to catalog all the right things that are being done.

     The second step, having actually noticed the positive, is to tell employees about the positives.  This stating the positive is most effective when it is a brief specific comment, such as “you handled that situation well” or “that was tricky and you pulled it off”.  A general statement at the end of the day, such as “good job” is less effective than a short acknowledgment at the time of some aspect of the job that was well done.  General positive statements are made by adequate managers; brief specific positive comments are made by exceptional managers.

     Making these brief comments about specific things the employee does, almost as an aside, not only lets the workers know that they are appreciated, these comments also inform employees that managers are noticing their work.  This notice will reduce the possibility of employees skipping some parts of their jobs.  When managers notice the positives and tell their employees what they have seen, the quality of the work will remain high.  Employees will do all the tasks, rather than just the tasks they enjoy, because they know their manager is paying attention.  That will reduce the need for managers to mention negatives because there will be fewer negative aspects to their employees’ job performance.   So everyone wins: the employees feel appreciated and the company receives high performance. 

Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human resource issues.  Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions, specializes in aiding small businesses.  Dr. Neal can be reached at sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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