A pat on the back can go a long way

Case Study
The problem with most recognition programs is that they don’t recognize enough people, enough of the time, says Mardi Walker, vice-president of people for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

Recognition can be a great force to make employees feel good about themselves and therefore perform better at work. Programs like honouring employees of the month and outstanding new employees — aptly named player of the month and rookie of the year at the corporation that owns and operates the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors, celebrate employee contribution.

“Those are great, but they only recognize a minimum number of people,” she says.

In the middle of the season, when employees are working full force, formal perks seem awfully far away. That’s when it’s the little pats on the back that count most.

“Somebody saying ‘thanks a lot for working a long day’ that makes a difference.”

To really make people feel appreciated, lots of the little things are probably more effective than a few of the big things.

“We do a lot of recognition just in terms of utilizing the resources we have, group e-mails go out all the time saying ‘Here’s what we did and these are the people we need to thank.’” If a letter comes in thanking somebody in the organization it gets put on the intranet so the person gets recognized within the company.

Recognition from co-workers is important, so Walker introduced “Soaring above the crowd” cards, where employees can thank another employee for their help or for a job well done. Part of the card is torn off and entered into a draw for various prizes, simple give-aways of T-shirts and such. The prizes don’t have to be expensive, that’s not the value of the exercise.

As organizations grow people start to feel more removed from each other, so they’ve also used the intranet to introduce people to everyone else in the organization. Small personal profiles are listed for every person in the company, what they do and their position in the organizational structure.

“It sort of seems like a little thing but it means a lot.”

Every six weeks, the company holds a lunch where different departments showcase their people and the things they do. “Departments are able to toot their horn to say, ‘Here’s what we are doing,’ and others say ‘If they are doing that maybe we can do this.’ People like having the opportunity to showcase what they can do.”

And managers are also encouraged to be creative and use recognition as effectively as possible for their groups.

In one group, the manager sent a letter to the parents of an employee, telling them about all of the great things their child had been doing. “One mother wrote a letter back saying she was the proudest mom in the town and she cried.” Other times she has sent letters to an employee’s spouse. Once it was an employee’s kids. “It really hit a kind of an emotional chord with the staff,” says Walker.

In order to be truly effective, recognition has to start right from the top.

At an earlier job, where her boss didn’t believe in recognition, Walker felt so under-appreciated she wrote herself a thank-you note, took it to him and told him to sign it.

He wanted to know why, since nobody recognized what he did, should she get special credit.

This is exactly the opposite of how Walker wants recognition to work at MLSEL. “The thing is that recognition still has to happen at the highest level. If the person at the top isn’t giving recognition to their people it isn’t going to flow down.”

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