Well-Timed Words: Free and Effective

When I worked as the employee communications specialist for an AT&T manufacturing plant in the 1990s, the general manager asked my help in communicating with employees about the need for heavy overtime hours around the Christmas/New Year holidays. While employees generally liked getting overtime, they were not thrilled about working so much at that time of year.

The general manager and I talked about the issue and focused his message around the business need while acknowledging the sacrifice of family time during holidays that are so focused on families. We decided it would be appropriate — and a nice touch — for the general manager to write a letter to the families of employees, explaining the reasons for the overtime but mostly thanking them for giving up their family members at Christmas. We worked hard to make sure the letter sounded sincere (because he was sincere in his sentiment) and gracious.

It worked. While there was still some understandable grumbling, the general consensus was that the letter was well-received and that families appreciated the gesture.

That story illustrates the importance of business leaders acknowledging the social contract that exists between employees and organizations. We often think first of the monetary contract and many business leaders believe money is the greatest motivator for employees. While money is important, it is not the only factor at work in the workplace.

Scott Keller, a director at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, co-wrote a book, “Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage.” In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, Keller says his research for the book found that the social contract — the understanding between employees and their employers that is predicated on meaningfulness of the work — is more powerful than the monetary contract. He mentions hand-written thank-you notes from the CEOs of Wells Fargo and PepsiCo as examples of social gestures that provide tremendous motivation to employees.

“Some managers might dismiss these as token gestures with at best a limited impact,” Keller writes. “In keeping with the significant body of evidence from the social sciences, employees on the receiving end would beg to differ. They say that the resulting boost in motivation and connection to the leader and the company can last for months if not years.”

And he quotes Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, on communication’s vital role in the social contract: “Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free — and worth a fortune.”

I often hear resistance from managers, supervisors and even business leaders when it comes to providing those well-timed, sincere words of praise. Old-school managers who weren’t raised in such an environment dismiss words of praise as soft psychobabble. “They get a paycheck, that should be enough,” they grumble. Others simply blame their own lack of interpersonal communication skills or discomfort. “I’m just not comfortable in one-on-one situations,” they say, or “I get nervous in front of groups.”

Well, guess what. Being a leader sometimes requires us to stretch our skills and to do things we’re not entirely comfortable doing. In this post-recession, 21st century work environment, it’s time for leaders — at all levels — to get over their fear of real, organic communication and see what good comes from such an inexpensive investment in employee motivation. This is “small-c communication” at its best, a way to help re-engage a disengaged workforce for the tremendous challenges that lie ahead for every organization in this economy.



One Response

  1. Robert – So often as communicators we’re faced with advising executives on the right way to reach out to employees about issues that are disruptive or difficult. Your post highlights how to do this with grace. That letter home showed respect. Over the long-term, those kinds of actions sustain a positive work environment and affect bottom-line business goals.

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