A paycheck is not a “thank you”: What Great Bosses Know about recognition

I dedicate this column to every employee who has ever heard a boss say "Your paycheck is your thanks" -- or to those whose supervisors quietly operate under that philosophy.

It's not uncommon. I hear about it from staffers and managers alike, those who complain about it and those who defend the philosophy.

Here's my take: It's wrongheaded thinking. It's counterproductive for the staff, the boss, and the organization. Make no mistake: paychecks are great. (Ask anyone desperate for one these days.) But they represent one half of a transaction, a baseline act of reciprocity. When I pay my cable or heating bill, I'm forking over what I owe; I'm not sending appreciation.

When it comes to employees and co-workers, appreciation matters.

In his new book "Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People," psychiatrist Edward Hallowell tells the story of Henry, a competent guy who, despite talent and a good work ethic, never got top marks in his annual reviews. His problem: he rarely gave credit to others and rarely encouraged their work. Hallowell writes:

Henry grew up with the belief that you simply do your job, and that was reward enough. If you were strong, you'd succeed. In the workplace, a paycheck meant "I love you." That was how he'd always seen it. That was how he lived his life.

Maybe you're like Henry. Maybe your parents raised you with a similar philosophy; people don't deserve thanks for doing what they're supposed to do, only for the extraordinary. If you're a manager, that might affect the way you deliver feedback, and why people find you to be more negative than positive.

Here are other shaky reasons managers withhold thanks:

  • No one thanks me, why should I thank others?
  • Thank people and they'll only expect more.
  • If I thank one person, I have to thank them all.
  • I once thanked an employee and the response was "Put in it my paycheck." Who needs that kind of snark?
  • Thank people and they'll get false confidence, especially folks who need to improve.

To which I say, get over your anger or fear about worst-case scenarios and get smarter about acknowledgment and appreciation:

  • Whether you wanted thanks and didn't get it or whether you've never expected thanks at all, leadership isn't about you. It's about what works best for others.
  • If people expect more appreciation and get it, they may deliver more to others. Next thing you know, you're warming up a cold workplace culture.
  • If you thank one person, you don't have to thank them all. Still, once you get into the habit, you probably won't find it all that daunting.
  • Just because some smartass employee blows off your thanks, don't take it out on others by withholding appreciation.
  • Thanking people doesn't mean you're declaring them to be perfect.

Think about that last point. Thanking people doesn't necessarily rise to the level of praising them. "Thank you for putting in the extra time to cover the shift when two people called in sick" is a far cry from "You are a remarkable employee whose skills are indispensable to us."

By choosing your words of appreciation carefully, you can make certain that they don't escalate into the land of undeserved praise. Well-crafted words of acknowledgment can also keep less-than-perfect staffers from giving up trying to improve because the boss never seems to take note of their efforts or small successes.

By choosing your words of appreciation carefully, you can also make certain that even your highest performers, the ones you think must instinctively know they're valued, have no doubt about it.

Back to our friend Henry in the book "Shine." The author reports that Henry got some coaching from his boss on how to connect with others more positively and he became far more effective. Hallowell reminds us:

Recognition is so powerful because it answers a fundamental human need, the need to feel valued in what we do. Managers are in a unique position to offer -- or withhold -- such recognition, and with it the feeling of being valued. Actually, everyone in the organization should contribute to the process of recognition.

As I write this, it's Thanksgiving week in the USA. What a perfect time for everyone who's the recipient of a paycheck to spend a little time being the distributor of appreciation, whether face-to-face or in a note. Then make a habit of it.

And by the way, thanks for taking time out of your busy days to read my columns.

In the companion podcast to this column, I look at the question of whether appreciation is best expressed in public or in private:

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    Jill Geisler

    Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist "spin." It takes exceptional leaders to build trust, along with the systems and culture that grow great journalism.


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