What were your last 10 or 15 employee conversations like? Chances are, they included phrases like, “I need you to finish that projection by the end of the day,” or, “I’m putting you on the Brown account,” or, “How much longer do you think it’ll take to finish that PowerPoint the client requested?” After all, you can’t run a business without addressing these types of issues. And chances are, unless they were delivered in a, shall we say, forceful tone of voice, your employees don’t mind hearing pertinent instructions and questions. So why does their morale seem to be, well, wilting?
According to Todd Patkin, the problem might not be what you’re saying, but what you’re not saying. The good news is, with a few well-chosen words, you can nurture employee relationships and help their engagement blossom this spring.
“In the midst of the everyday chaos of running a business, leaders often don’t think about what they could or should say to motivate their employees,” says Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $19.95, www.findinghappinessthebook.com). “Often, leaders assume that their employees know how they feel—about each person’s individual performance and about the company’s health in general. Usually, though, that’s not the case.”
Patkin speaks from experience. For nearly two decades, he was instrumental in leading his family’s auto parts business, Autopart International, to new heights until it was finally bought by Advance Auto Parts in 2005. One of his most reliable growth strategies, he reports, was proactively nurturing his employees’ attitudes about their jobs by engaging them in conversation. Now, Patkin translates that experience into consulting with organizations to help them build corporate morale and promote greater productivity.
“They’d never bring it up themselves, but there are certain phrases your employees really want to hear from you,” Patkin confirms. “Some have to do with affirmation; others center on encouragement, reassurance, respect, gratitude, or trust. When you verbalize these things—which takes only a few seconds of your time!—you will notice a big change in your employees’ motivation, commitment, and productivity.”
If you start incorporating these phrases into your at-work vocabulary, Patkin promises, your employees’ engagement will “blossom” this spring:
“I need your help.” The age of rule-with-an-iron-fist, top-down leadership is fading fast. More and more, organizations in all industries are realizing that there’s an almost-magical power in the synergy of teams. Here’s how that applies to you: Your employees all have unique skill sets, experiences, and ideas—so tap into them!
“Yes, your employees will be looking to you to steer your company in the right direction, but I promise, they know you’re human, and they don’t expect you to have all the answers,” Patkin comments. “So the next time you’re facing a difficult decision or brainstorming options, ask your team for help. Rather than losing respect for you as a leader, they’ll appreciate that you treated them as valued partners—and they’ll feel more invested in your company’s future because they had more of a hand in creating it.”
“How is your family?” The truth is, people don’t care how much you know (or how good you are at your job) until they know how much you care. Your employees will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. So get to know each team member on an individual basis and incorporate that knowledge into your regular interactions. For instance, if you know that John in Accounting has a daughter who’s applying to college, ask him which schools she’s considering. Or if Susanna in HR just came back from vacation, ask to see a few pictures.
“Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know,” confirms Patkin. “When you dare to ‘get personal,’ your employees’ desire to please you will skyrocket. That’s why, when I was leading my family’s company, I took advantage of every opportunity I could think of to let my people know I was thinking about them. I recommended books I thought they might enjoy. I sent motivational quotes to employees who might appreciate them. I attended all weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and graduations I was invited to. And you know what? Not only did I fuel my employees’ engagement…I also formed a lot of meaningful relationships that continue to this day.”
“What do you need from me?” Often, employees are anxious about asking the boss for what they need, whether it’s updated office equipment, more time to complete a project, advice, etc. They may fear a harsh response, want to avoid looking needy, or simply feel that it’s “not their place” to ask for more than you’ve already provided. By explicitly asking what you can give them, you extend permission for your people to make those requests—and they’ll certainly appreciate it.
“Be sure to treat any requests you receive seriously,” Patkin instructs. “If you can’t give an employee what she asks for, explain why and work with her to find another solution. Either way, this question, and the conversations it sparks, can give you valuable insight regarding how to improve your company’s operations, facilities, and culture. It can also show you how to best develop and support individual team members.”
“I noticed what you did.” Every day, your employees do a lot of “little” things that keep your company running smoothly and customers coming back: Refilling the copier with paper when it’s empty. Smiling at customers after each transaction. Double-checking reports for errors before sending them on. And so forth. Unfortunately, in many organizations, these everyday actions are taken for granted, which (understandably) has a negative effect on employee morale.
“Your employees want to know that you notice and value the mundane parts of their jobs, not just the big wins and achievements,” Patkin confirms. “That’s why I recommend making it your mission to ‘catch’ as many of your employees as possible in a good act. Then, point out exactly what it is about their behavior that you appreciate. Phrases like, ‘Sal, I’ve noticed that you always take such care to keep the file room neat. Thank you!’ take about five seconds to say, but they can pay long-lasting dividends for your company in terms of morale and motivation.”
“Thank you.” Yes, your employees may crave recognition for doing the mundane parts of their jobs, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t also appreciate a heartfelt “thank you” for bigger accomplishments. Whether it’s “Thanks for staying late last night,” “Thanks for being so patient with Mrs. Smith—I know she can be a difficult customer,” “Thank you for making our first-quarter marketing campaign a success,” or something else, your people will treasure your appreciation more than you realize.
“People love to hear positive feedback about themselves, and in most cases, they’ll be willing to work a lot harder to keep the compliments and thanks coming,” notes Patkin. “Praise, especially when it comes from an authority figure, is incredibly fulfilling. (And sadly, it’s also rare.) On that note, make sure that you praise and acknowledge your people in a positive way more often than you criticize them. That’s because negative feedback tends to stick in most people’s memories longer, so you need to counterbalance it.”
“Hey, everyone—listen to what Riley accomplished!” Everybody loves to be recognized and complimented in front of their peers. So don’t stop with a “mere” compliment when an employee experiences a win—tell the rest of the team, too! Whether correctly or incorrectly, many employees feel that their leaders point out only their mistakes in front of the group, so make it your daily mission to prove that perception wrong.
“When I was at Autopart International and I saw that one of my people did something noteworthy, I made sure that everyone else knew about it by emailing the story to the entire chain,” Patkin recalls. “I could literally see the glow on the highlighted employee’s face for weeks, and I also noticed that many of the other team members began to work even harder in order to earn a write-up themselves. Other successful recognition strategies included writing thank-you notes to my employees and publishing a company-wide monthly newsletter highlighting our ‘stars.’ Sometimes, I would even call my employees’ homes to brag on them to their families!”
“What would you like to do here?” Sure, you originally hired each of your employees to do specific jobs. But over time, your company has grown and changed—and so have your people. That’s why Patkin says it’s a good idea to check in with each one of them periodically to ask what they’d like to be doing. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that your administrative assistant would like to be included in the next marketing campaign design team. You might be even more (pleasantly!) surprised to find that her social media engagement ideas yield impressive results.
“Annual performance reviews might be a good time to discuss this topic with your employees,” he suggests. “No, you won’t always be able to accommodate every employee’s preferences. But whenever possible, keep job descriptions within your company fluid and allow your people to have a say in matching their skills to the company’s needs. This is one of the best ways I know to build loyalty and encourage your employees to really take ownership of their jobs. After all, they’ll have had a hand in designing them!”
“I have bad news.” You certainly don’t mind sharing good news with your employees, but bad news is a different story. Your instinct might be to play down negative developments, or even keep them to yourself entirely. Nobody wants to be the person who says, “We’re going to have to eliminate some positions over the next six months,” or, “Unfortunately, our company can’t afford to provide raises or bonuses this year.”
“Nevertheless, your employees deserve to hear the truth from you as soon as possible,” Patkin confirms. “They aren’t stupid and will be able to tell when something is ‘up’ even if you don’t acknowledge it. By refusing to share bad news, you’ll only increase paranoia and anxiousness—neither of which are good for engagement or productivity. But when you treat your people like responsible adults by being honest and open, they will appreciate your transparency…and often, you’ll find that they’re willing to voluntarily double their efforts to help you turn the tide.”
“What do you think?” Maybe you’ve never put much emphasis on the thoughts and opinions of your employees. After all, you pay them a fair wage to come to work each day and perform specific tasks. As a leader, it’s your job to decide what those tasks should be and how they should be carried out, right? Well, yes—strictly speaking. But according to Patkin, this unilateral approach to leading your team sends the impression that you’re superior (even if that’s not your intent) and also contributes to disengagement.
“Employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine,” he points out. “Often, their performance will be grudging and uninspired. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by asking them for their opinions, ideas, and preferences. Again, they’ll be much more invested in your organization’s success because they had an active part in creating it. And guess what? Your employees probably won’t care as much as you think they will if their suggestions don’t become reality. Mostly, they just want to know that their voice was heard by the people in charge.”
“Here’s how our company works and where we stand.” In many companies, employees in Sales don’t know much about what’s happening in Accounting. Likewise, the folks in Accounting aren’t really familiar with how things in the warehouse work…and so on and so forth. Generally, this state of affairs doesn’t cause too many problems. But according to Patkin, helping your employees make connections regarding how your company works from top to bottom will streamline internal processes, reduce misunderstandings, and promote team spirit.
“Again, this is all about transparency and treating employees like partners,” he comments. “When you make a point of showing everyone how your business ‘works’ and how their specific job descriptions fit into the overall ‘machinery,’ you’ll find that us-versus-them thinking tends to decline, and that profit-minded solutions begin to proliferate.
“At Autopart International, one of the best management decisions I ever made was showing my employees ‘the numbers’ on a regular basis,” Patkin continues. “I made sure that everyone understood the relationship between their performance and the bottom line—and thus their own pay. Several employees told me that my transparency prompted them to think more carefully about how their own everyday choices and efforts affected the bigger picture.”
“That’s okay. We all make mistakes. Let’s talk about how to fix this.” In business, mistakes are going to happen. And in many instances, the impact they have on your company revolves around how you as a leader handle them. Sure, lambasting an employee who has dropped the ball may make you feel better in the short term, but it’ll negatively impact that employee’s self-confidence, relationship with you, and feelings for your company for much longer.
“Don’t get me wrong: You shouldn’t take mistakes, especially those involving negligence, incompetence, or dishonesty, lightly,” says Patkin. “But when your employees have made an honest mistake, try to be as understanding with them as you would be with your own family members. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the employee feels very bad already, and that yelling or lecturing won’t change the past. Instead, focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. Did the employee (or the company as a whole) learn something? Should a process or procedure be tweaked going forward to reduce the chances of something similar reoccurring?
“Also, never forget that mistakes are an essential part of growth,” Patkin adds. “The innovation and creativity it takes to grow a business will be accompanied by setbacks and slip-ups. You don’t want to create an environment where people don’t take potentially productive risks because they’re afraid you’ll get mad if they screw up.”
“You deserve a reward.” Patkin is adamant that simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far more happy than, say, big salaries and corner offices. However, he isn’t denying that more tangible rewards like bonuses, vacation time, prime parking spaces, benefits, and more have their place in raising employee engagement. The truth is, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an employee who doesn’t appreciate these things.
“When resources allow, look for ways to reward your employees for their hard work,” Patkin recommends. “Remember, nobody wants to work for a Scrooge! At Autopart International, I thanked employees with everything from sports tickets to door prize drawings to lavish company parties to vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. I found that when I treated my employees like kings and queens, they worked extra-hard to be the recipients of these perks…and they were much more resistant to moving when offers to work for ‘the other guys’ occasionally came their way.”
“I know you can do it.” Of course you should try to hire employees who are confident and self-directed. But even the most self-assured individuals appreciate an explicit vote of confidence from their leaders!
“Constantly challenge your people and push them to improve while reassuring them that you believe in them,” Patkin advises. “Everyone, no matter how capable or experienced they are, appreciates encouragement. At Autopart International, I found that tying verbal votes of confidence to something more concrete—specifically, employees’ pay—was one of the best ways to motivate them.
“Specifically, I told my employees that I believed in their ability to help our company grow—so much so that I wanted to introduce the concept of performance-based pay with no cap,” he shares. “I found that when a leader is willing to bet large amounts of money on employees’ potential achievements, those employees will work harder for you—and for themselves!—than you ever thought possible. With this strategy, everyone wins.”
“This task is in your hands—I’m stepping back.” Most micromanaging leaders don’t set out to annoy or smother their employees. The problem is, they care—a lot!—and want to make sure everything is done just so and that no balls are dropped or opportunities missed. The problem is, excessive hovering can give employees the impression that you don’t trust them or have faith in them—a belief that actively undermines engagement.
“Once you’ve delegated a task, step back and let your employees do what you’ve asked of them,” Patkin instructs. “Yes, I know that can be easier said than done. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go for a walk around the building to keep yourself from hovering! It may also help to remind yourself that you hired each of your employees for a reason, that you have faith in their potential, and that if they do need help, they know where to find you.”
“Remember, business is always personal,” Patkin concludes. “Specifically, it’s about reaching and motivating each of your employees on a personal level so that they care about contributing to your organization’s ultimate success. This spring, which phrases will you be adding to your at-work vocabulary?”
-by Todd Patkin
About Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, Twelve Weeks to Finding Happiness: Boot Camp for Building Happier People, and Destination: Happiness: The Travel Guide That Gets You from Here to There, Emotionally and Spiritually (coming 2014), grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, and their amazing son, Josh.