I once had a boss tell me that I should learn to pat myself on the back.
Aside from the physical limitations involved in that, this was said during a conversation about my performance, where he mentioned in passing that I had exceeded expectations. He explained that he didn’t see the need to offer any recognition, because he hadn’t received it earlier in his career.
That experience stuck with me as I started to develop my own leadership philosophy. There certainly is truth to finding internal motivators and not relying on others to develop your self-worth. With that said, I believe a manager’s role is to create a positive, productive environment that serves and supports team members. It doesn’t require extraordinary effort or expense to achieve this goal and the results are worth it.
Here are five ways to make your employees feel valued at work:
1. Show gratitude
People want to feel appreciated for what they do, especially by their managers. That’s because leaders have a broader view of organizational goals and evaluate employee performance, so their praise feels particularly relevant and lets employees know they’re on the right track. Here are some guidelines for expressing gratitude at work:
- Clearly state what your team member did well, how it relates to her unique strengths, and how it helps the organization. (In general, make it more about her amazing qualities and less about how it helped you–i.e., “Your quick and creative thinking helped the event go off without a hitch,” is way better than, “You saved the day–thanks!”)
- You should say it more often than you think; so long as you’re always speaking authentically and specifically.
My favorite way to show gratitude is a handwritten note. In addition to the written message, the note itself shows an investment of your time. It brings me a lot of joy to see the note on an employee’s bulletin board later, because I’ll know that it was meaningful to her.
Still not convinced about the significance of such a simple act of gratitude? In a Harvard Business Review article, professors Francesca Gino and Adam Grant shared the results of an experiment where fundraisers who received personal thanks from their manager for their efforts and contributions increased their outreach metrics by 50%.
Recognition and gratitude strengthen feelings of self-confidence and motivation, and reinforce sense of purpose.
2. Provide learning and professional development opportunities
The best bosses look for ways to augment their team members’ growth with external professional development opportunities, such as attending industry conferences, joining a professional association, or gaining a certification. As a manager, you may have limited resources, so focusing these resources on employees who exceed expectations shows an investment in their potential.
Don’t forget: Plenty of professional growth and learning opportunities exist within your organization, too. You can take your direct report to coffee to talk about his career goals or introduce her to another senior leader in the organization for a mentoring chat. When appropriate, invite the person to attend a high-level meeting with you to learn about a new area, or ask her to lead a strategy meeting on your behalf.
When you personally participate in your employees’ learning and professional growth, you show you believe in them and want to help prepare them for their future success.
3. Care about your team members as people
In my first managerial role, I made the mistake of focusing solely on the work. At that stage in my career, I believed conversations about extracurricular activities interfered with my lengthy to-do list.
After receiving some wise counsel from my boss, I learned I needed to demonstrate that I cared about my team members as individuals before I expected their best work.
By asking them about their weekends, their families, and their hobbies–and sharing tidbits about my own–I built trusting relationships. That allowed us to better understand our experiences outside the office and helped us work together more effectively in the office, too.
4. Make time for your team members
You know the feeling when you have a list of things to finish in one 30-minute block on your calendar–and right then an employee stops by. Do you give the person time to ask their question or share their story, or do you tell him now is not a good time?
How you respond in that moment defines you as a leader. Your facial expressions, body language, and words will affect whether your employees feel supported by you–and it will impact their willingness to return the next time they have a question. Even if you can’t meet right then, offer a time slot where you can connect later in the day.
Remember, this “distraction” is your job as a leader of people.
You can create more productive interactions with team members by proactively connecting with them, ideally in person. Walk the halls and have some questions ready to engage them. These are a few that I like to use:
- What’s new? It’s open-ended enough that they can respond with whatever feels right at that moment.
- What fires have you had to put out today/this week? This gives you a chance to understand what your team members face in their work and how you can help remove obstacles.
- How can I help support you right now? This shows you care (see No. 3) and creates a shared commitment to their success.
Of note, I told my team in advance I planned to do this, so they didn’t think I was checking up on them. And I add notes to my calendar to preserve time to WTH (walk the halls, ahem!), so I can prioritize these conversations.
5. Celebrate in big and little ways
Do you know the expression that the little things are the big things? It’s true at work, too.
Recognize your team members’ work anniversaries or birthdays. (I’m a fan of balloons or treats at their desk so others stop by to join the celebration.) Host a pizza party for the whole team when a sale closes, break out ice cream mid-afternoon for a surprise treat to bring everyone together, or organize a monthly coffee break with no work agenda.
If you are looking for a more elaborate celebration, create a new tradition in your workplace. At our office, we started a New Year’s Eve party on the last day of the fundraising year to recognize the year’s accomplishments; this could be easily adapted for your company’s founder’s day or another special date.
Whatever the occasion, find reasons to celebrate and bring joy to work.
Try using one of these ideas each day for a week and see how it goes. Then you can start to add in others as you get a sense of what works best for you and your team.
Finally, it is important to mention that you can and should ask your employees how they like to be recognized and what makes them feel most appreciated. (This can happen as part of a “Stay” conversation when they first join your organization and throughout their tenure.) Ultimately, if your employees feel that you and the organization have invested in them personally, their job satisfaction and personal growth will increase, as will their work outcomes. And that all deserves a pat on the back for everyone.