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HUMAN RESOURCES

Supporting strong initiative

It happened unexpectedly last week. Hanka, one of our project assistants, took the initiative in handling a customer complaint and addressed the issue so well that the client later gave me a phone call to congratulate us on our excellent response. If only our staff did this every time! What can be done to support such good strong initiative and provide fertile soil for continuing this activity - both by Hanka and other members of our team?
As you know, the field of motivation of employees has been somewhat exhaustively researched in the past. Relatively few findings actually help managers. The Maslow Hierarchy of Needs insists that people's needs for various types of motivators generally become more sophisticated as they achieve higher levels of prosperity and material comfort.


Mari Novak

It happened unexpectedly last week. Hanka, one of our project assistants, took the initiative in handling a customer complaint and addressed the issue so well that the client later gave me a phone call to congratulate us on our excellent response. If only our staff did this every time! What can be done to support such good strong initiative and provide fertile soil for continuing this activity - both by Hanka and other members of our team?

As you know, the field of motivation of employees has been somewhat exhaustively researched in the past. Relatively few findings actually help managers. The Maslow Hierarchy of Needs insists that people's needs for various types of motivators generally become more sophisticated as they achieve higher levels of prosperity and material comfort.

Research some years ago also emphasised that specific actions, which help in motivating individuals in the short-term soon become required to maintain performance in the longer-term. Thus such things as a special cash bonus several months running or new privileges for the personal use of a pool car soon become expected or even demanded just to maintain a normal level of performance.

Given this problem, what can promote exemplary performance that does not later become expected or demanded? Let's consider some immediate (within 1 - 5 days) actions you might take.

A key concept is the time relationship of rewarding to the actual event. Providing a cash bonus for something which occurred three months ago will not inspire the highest performance. The following are some alternatives that might be tried as immediate incentives:

a. The proverbial "pat-on-the-back" is probably the most underused form of reward. A strong verbal acknowledgement of an employee's successful action combined with some form of touch such as a handshake or gentle pat on the shoulder is a very powerful reinforcement. To get the most out of this technique, it is important that this action take place fairly immediately after the observed performance. Also, it is important that you should describe (in some detail sometimes) exactly why you find the performance exemplary and what it means both for you, the other team members, and the organisation as a whole. The whole exchange can take under a minute, cost nothing, and still be a very strong incentive to the employee for future action.


Steven Kelly

b. Within a week of the action, some form of public recognition is very powerful. This can be as simple as a formal verbal recognition of the performance at a staff meeting, an announcement to the team during another form of meeting, or even a written recognition which might be placed in the employee's personnel file.

c. In some cases, a special one-off action might be appropriate. This might take the form of support for an upcoming development activity (i.e. training or field trip), a day off to round out a longer weekend, or even an informal lunch to allow for building a stronger interpersonal relationship. Generally, financial incentives are not recommended except in those cases where the achievement clearly brings in unexpected revenues or results in significant cost savings.

d. For very special achievements, an impromptu celebration of staff might be in order. One boss I know keeps a bottle of champagne in the fridge especially for rewarding key events such as landing a large order, completing a difficult project, or passing important office milestones.

The most important elements of any strategies for employee recognition are: timing, relevance to the staff member, and your personal involvement. We suggest you try a few of the ideas above.


Mari Novak and Steven Kelly are partners at KNO Slovensko. Their column appears monthly. Send comments or questions to kno@kno.sk.

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