ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

October 1999


Not So Common Sense

A Fresh Squeeze On Labor Relations

Toughening Up Today's Change Efforts

People Before Strategy: Four Types of Employees that Help or Hinder a Changing Corporate Culture

The Missing Link
Failed Mergers Linked to Poor Management of Workforce Issues

A Few Kind Words: The Importance of Positive Reinforcement

Tool Time
Assessing Management Tools


Turnabout Is Fair Play
by Peter Block


Brief Cases

Diary of a Shutdown

Views for a Change



A Few Kind Words: The Importance of Positive Reinforcement

Sue Glasscock and Kim Gram know what it's like to work hard. And to yearn for recognition. In 1989, as long-time employees of StorageTek, a Colorado mainframe storage and retrieval company, they were drafted for a TQM initiative.

"Kim and I were both whiners and complainers," Glasscock recalls. "We were always saying, 'You don't appreciate us.'" She worked in systems management, and Gram was an engineer. Both had been left to their own devices to recognize employees. "We were paying for things out-of-pocket."

The company wanted a broad range of people involved in the initiative and thought the two women would be attuned to the process. In fact, they liked that Glasscock and Gram were so critical, figuring they would get down to important issues.

It was good thinking. Glasscock served for eight years as StorageTek's employee recognition administrator, working closely with Gram, who became a staff quality engineer. Along the way they formed "Positive Strokes," a management consulting firm to help companies create and enhance workplace recognition programs, and now their sole employment.

They've co-authored two books, Saying Thanks - Implementing Effective Workplace Recognition (1995) and Workplace Recognition - Meaning, Myths, Methods and Magic (1999).

To open conversations on the subject, they ask a series of questions:
· Is your employee recognition system based on a competition?
· Is less than 100% of your employee population recognized annually?
· Is your system based on cash rewards?
· Does your recognition system award individual effort more than team efforts?
· Is recognition an event that occurs once a year?

Each of these approaches ignores a fundamental human need, according to Gram and Glasscock. "We believe there is not a dollar amount in existence that can replace the social and psychological need of human beings to feel appreciated."

It's a simple concept that gets results. Their recognition system for StorageTek was to take 18 months to roll out. Glasscock recalls, "Three months later the organization saw the fun we were having, they wanted to join in. It actually went company-wide in six months and by nine months everyone was in it."

Their approach is not brain surgery. Their first book's title spells it out clearly: Saying Thanks. They quickly add, "… and meaning it." Gram notes, "Positive reinforcement is actually the only tool." Other reinforcement methods - such as negative reinforcement, punishment or extinction - just don't cut it.

Gram says, "All they insure is a 'just enough' type of behavior. They do not drive people to their highest performance level." Most people, she explains, simply work to the minimum level. Rather than set high goals, it makes more sense to get there incrementally.

Along the way, saying thanks is often more important than monetary incentives. "We're talking more psychological stuff," Glasscock says. "A pat on the back. A smile. A nod. Acknowledgment and approval."

It's a common-sense approach. "You want your whole workforce working toward your planned goals," Glasscock explains, "not just 1.6 percent" or whatever portion of employees are being recognized. "You want 100 percent of your people working toward your business initiatives."

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey advances an idea that guides them, "You can buy a person's hand, but you can't buy his heart. His heart is where his enthusiasm is, his loyalty. You can buy his back, but you can't buy his brain. That's where his creativity is, his ingenuity, his resourcefulness."

The two women quote studies showing three-quarters of many workforces could do more. "So you can imagine how your company would turn around if everybody was working to their full potential," says Gram, adding, "We're not doing this to be nice to employees. We want to do what's good for the business." They are proud that their ideas have been identified as a best practice and benchmarked by more than 40 companies.

It's easy for recognition systems to become depersonalized, especially in big organizations. Gram and Glasscock point out how our high-tech age -faxes, voice mails, e-mails and form correspondence - affects the way we relate to each other.

They claim, "Most of us undergo a personality change as soon as we arrive in the workplace. Our job descriptions do not call for common sense, common courtesy, honesty, sincerity, gratitude or being personable, so we abandon these personal attributes in the company parking lot."

For example, look at the recognition system where, when employees reach their five-year anniversary, they receive a catalog to order a gift for work well done.

Gram asks, "How would your wife feel if you sent her a catalog every five years for your anniversary? These are things we do not do in our personal life. They really don't work. So why do we expect them to work at the job?"

Monetary rewards do not cut the mustard either. Glasscock observes, "You can't buy people's loyalty. A paycheck is not enough." She cites a study suggesting cash rewards must be at least seven percent of a base salary to get employees' attention. "The impact lasts three to ten days. Most people can't recall what they did with the cash. If they can, it's most likely they paid a bill. There's no lasting value."

Gram and Glasscock outline a five-step process to create a meaningful employee recognition program. Step one determines what needs to be achieved. Goals must mean something to all employees, and they must be measurable and visible. The second step involves identifying what will be achieved when goals are attained.

The third step is to build a "tool box" with a broad array of recognition options, from simple to complex. All employees must have access to the program and be recognized for their success frequently enough to keep them motivated and feeling positive.

They use a remark by Tom Peters to show how simple this can be: "The handwritten thank-you note is a modest act of engagement. It likely won't save lives, but it just might boost your odds of becoming rich, famous, and adored."

The fourth step is to show you care. Both Glasscock and Gram underscore this as the most critical element of any program. Gram says, "The delivery is the most important. It's not the gift. It's the thought that counts. You want it to be a small gift. The most important part of the whole event is how you deliver it."

Gram recalls a simple story. They were implementing a program to give employees a "night on the town" with a gift certificate for $100 at a local restaurant. An In-House/On-Site graphic designer did a good job creating the certificate so they gave her the first one. "Well, she broke into tears," Gram remembers. "She said her manager had never, ever thanked her, and she had worked in the company ten years."

The final step of their process is to measure, monitor and continuously improve the recognition program.

Glasscock says, "We cannot say enough about how people crave appreciation. It's an innate need. It doesn't even have to cost anything to make somebody feel good about themselves. A few kind words."

Gram adds, "We've gotten so impersonal in our business today. We need to get involved with our people and be there."

October '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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