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OWNER'S MANUAL

How to Ruin an Employee's Big Moment

Make sure recognition and praise make the right impact.
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Imagine you're an employee. You've accomplished something great. Or you've reached a key milestone. It's your time to shine. But then what you thought would be a fulfilling moment turned out to be anything but. You're disappointed.

And you never forget.

My first post-college job was at a manufacturing plant. I worked my way up from material handler to apprentice machine operator. A little over 3 years later, I became a journeyman. (I'm prouder of earning my journeyman card than my college degree, odd as that might sound.)

Part of the "graduation" ritual was being presented the card by the plant manager, a man we knew existed but whose sightings on the manufacturing floor were only slightly rarer than those of a unicorn.

That day my supervisor took me up to the (literally) corner office.  The door was open but he knocked. The plant manager looked up, flicked his eyes across his desk, then looked back up and said, "Good morning, Jeff."

We sat down and he talked. He spoke about how shop floor employees were actually the backbone of the plant. He shared how proud he was of me. He talked about how he had always expected great things from me and today was proof he had been right. Then he explained how the business was like a three-legged stool, manufacturing was one of the legs, and if one leg breaks the stool tips over so we all need to do our part. Then he shook my hand, gave me my card, and sent me on my way.

I walked away feeling pretty good. While I had never even spoken to him before, he was the plant manager, so I automatically respected him.

When I got back to the line another operator said, "How was it?"

"Good," I said.

"Cool." As he walked away he looked over his shoulder and said, "How 'bout that three-legged stool?"

A few minutes later I passed another operator on the way to the break room. "Get your card?" he asked.

I nodded and he extended his for a high five. As our hands smacked he said, "Three-legged stool, baby."

I quickly realized the three-legged stool story was actually a running joke among journeymen: everyone got the same spiel.

That made me think. The plant manager had to check his calendar to remember my name. And how could he expect "great things" from me when he knew nothing about me? And the fact he avoided the shop floor like the plague clearly meant he didn't see shop floor employees as the backbone of the plant.

Presenting me with my journeyman's card? He obviously felt it was his duty, not his honor.

And I never forgot.

When employees can tell you are genuinely honored to praise, to congratulate, to recognize, or to celebrate their accomplishments, the difference is huge.

Make the effort. Take the time to know the person you honor. Take the time to know something personal so you can have a conversation instead of spouting platitudes. (It's easy. Ask around. Just say, "I'm presenting Jeff with his journeyman's card tomorrow but I don't know him that well. Can you tell me a little about him?")

Even if the reward or celebration is something you do on a regular basis, take the time to ensure each person you honor--because it is an honor--feels the moment is special and unique.

From each individual's perspective the moment is unique, and it's your job to make sure he or she feels that way.

Do it right and the person honored will never forget--only this time in the best possible way.

Last updated: Mar 19, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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