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A Leader's Power and Obligation

Recognize: The work isn't being done by elves

JOHN WAS A charismatic leader I worked with early in my career. People were drawn to him and charged by the vision he cast regarding the work of our nonprofit organization. Our staff was smart, talented, and motivated, and we accomplished far more than the size of our team would suggest.

John also had a blind spot, a trait that pretty much drove the rest of us crazy. We’d be in a staff meeting, talking about something we had accomplished after a great deal of time and effort. John would remark, “Boy, that was great! That thing really fell together, didn’t it?”

“Fell together”? Who did he think did the work? Elves and fairies?

How a major event “fell together”

I vividly remember a huge program we hosted, an evening event to gain publicity and raise funds. We reserved an auditorium with a capacity of about 2500 people, and aimed to fill those seats and wow the guests. Our staff lived with it for months. The week before the event, we gave John a final briefing on the progress. He responded, “Hey, this thing is really falling together, isn’t it?”

Yeah, it’s really falling together, I thought. I had been in charge of writing and assembling the program, and this event represented months of work.

Yeah, it’s really falling together, thought Kim, general secretary for the event. At times ready to tear her hair out or strangle one of us because of the constant stress, she retained her sense of humor and kept on serving faithfully.

Yeah, it’s really falling together, thought Chuck, responsible for the physical set-up. Because of many 15-hour work days, his wife and small children complained that he was never home anymore. By this point he was thinking nostalgically about his former “paying job” he had given up to join our nonprofit mission.

Yeah, it’s really falling together, thought the six or eight other people in the room, who were working together to pull it off — all so John wouldn’t have to worry about anything except getting up to speak.

Results of a team effort

The event was a resounding success. Unlike many fund raisers people dutifully attend, the audience was sky-high after this one. One person said to me: “If I had known how good this was going to be, I would have brought twenty friends with me! Next year I will.” We raised funds far beyond our expectations.

Celebrating our success afterward, we happily met and told stories from our various perspectives. That’s when John chimed in with (you guessed it), “Hey, that thing really fell together, didn’t it?”

Yup. It just fell together. It’s a good thing those elves were on the ball!

In case you’re wondering, we restrained ourselves from committing murder. It’s a good thing we liked John and believed in the value of our work. It’s also a good thing we all were able to keep some sense of humor about his annoying trait. At least we knew how these things were accomplished and we appreciated each other.

But John regularly missed the opportunity to do what a leader can do better than anyone … something that is the source of much of a leader’s power and influence … and something that is as simple as anything can be to do: Give recognition, appreciation, and thanks to the people who enable the leader to be successful.

What you can do

In my years as an executive coach, I have heard a common complaint from employees: “The only time my boss talks to me about my job performance is when I’ve messed up. He or she never tells me I’m doing a good job.”

The CEO of a company once told me, “If you work for me, about the only time you’ll hear from me is if something is wrong.” And his behavior corresponded with that philosophy.

The effects of this neglect are more serious than you may think.

Max De Pree says, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you.” It’s the last responsibility of saying thank you that I want to emphasize today.

Do you know why people work at work? If you think, “Because they are paid to do it,” you are wide of the mark. Yes, people have a job because they need a paycheck, but that’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking if you know why people put their hearts into their work.

Surveys of front-line workers for decades have given the same answers. People put their hearts into their work for reasons like these:

  • Belonging

Gaining a sense of identity through being an accepted part of a group; even better, being part of an effective team.

  • Recognition

Receiving positive attention for a job well done.

  • Appreciation and thanks

Having one’s contribution acknowledged by the leader and teammates.

  • Relationship with their boss or authority figure

Just being up close and personal with a leader they like and respect and receiving positive attention.

The last point may be one of the least-known and least-appreciated of the motivators among managers. If you are a leader, your personal attention, even in very small doses, really matters to those who work for you and can be extremely motivating.

I call these the Basic Motivators. For effective leaders, these are ordinary, everyday, almost-automatic behaviors. They function for your people like oil and coolant do for your car, reducing friction and increasing efficiency and effectiveness. These factors enable people to perform at high levels for extended periods of time without burning out.

Where does the paycheck figure as a motivator? Farther down the list, usually around #6.

So what is motivating people all about? It doesn’t usually take a lot. In fact, it’s more often what managers do to demotivate people that is the problem. Besides the failure to cultivate the positive points above, major demotivators include being ignored, receiving regular negative messages, and the lack of clear expectations.

Beyond these, if you really want to put a dagger in people’s motivation, simply do this: Accept all the credit for the achievements of a team. As much as I liked John and still do, I have to admit that this was one of his major failings. He really had an ego problem that made it painful for him to share the public spotlight with anyone else, even when recognition was richly warranted.

It doesn’t take much

Little actions can be amazingly powerful!

  • Small comments of praise and thanks

Just end a meeting with “Mike, thanks for doing this for me. I really appreciate it.” Or, “Hey, Nancy, have I told you lately that you’re the greatest? I couldn’t do it without you.”

That’s all it takes. You don’t have to deliver a speech or hire a brass band. Just remember that being thanked and recognized really matters to people!

  • Short notes of appreciation

Many effective leaders have discovered the power of writing short notes. You’ll find that people sometimes keep them for years.

  • Make sure you spread around the credit

You will always receive recognition for leading a successful team. It’s like playing quarterback: If the team wins, you’ll be a star. Everybody knows who the quarterback is. But smart quarterbacks make sure to recognize and thank the ones who seldom get their names in the papers, the big guys up front who do the blocking. Without those guys sacrificing themselves for the good of the team, there would be many more bruises and far fewer touchdowns.

It’s those people around you who are making you successful, not invisible elves. Acknowledge their good work, tell them you appreciate them, and say thank you — and see how they do even more. Li

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