Interview – Dr Bob Nelson (Guru of Thank You)

Thank your staff
The Guru of Thank You, Dr Bob Nelson, says recognising staff for a job well done isn’t necessarily about monetary rewards. Rajeev Nair met him in Dubai

Photograph: Prashanth Mukundan

Dr Bob Nelson was once approached by a manager who insisted that one of the ways listed in his best-selling book, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, wouldn’t work for his company.
Nelson ripped off the relevant page from the book, handed it back, and said: “Well, here are another 1,000 ways.”
The Guru of Thank You narrates the anecdote to explain how managers often stall employee recognition programmes under the pretext of constraints, mostly financial.
According to Dr Nelson, president and founder of Nelson Motivation Inc., money is only one element in thanking the staff for a job well done. From a heartfelt “Thank you” to convenient incentives in kind, there are, well, 1,001 ways (for starters) to motivate them.
He says it is demeaning to employees and hypocritical when current employers promise to match salaries after they have decided to switch jobs. The management should have been doing it on the first hand.
In the same vein, he insists that there is no faster beeline for mediocrity than treating unequal performances equally and rewarding marginal performers on par with the star performers.
An ideal motivation strategy therefore should be to “single out the star performers, rally around them, and keep on track all the people who make it happen.”
Dr Nelson cites research to illustrate the direct co-relation between employee motivation and loyalty. “The number one factor of how long some one will stay at given organisation is directly related to the relationship he or she has with his immediate supervisor.”
A graduate in communication studies, Dr Nelson became a celebrity of sorts with his first book, Job Hunt, written when he was 25 years old. Since then, his books have been on best-seller lists with 1,001 Ways finding acceptance the world over. He followed it up with 1001 Ways to Energize Employees, 1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work, and The 1001 Rewards Recognition Field Book.
Easy with words and at ease in person, Dr Nelson was in Dubai for a management workshop hosted by Right Selection.
Excerpts from an interview:

Whose side are you on — the employers’ or employees’?
(Laughs) I like to think that I represent the interests of both sides, though, normally, my workshops are attended by managers, owners and CEOs. I help them understand how they can better motivate the employees to perform at a higher level and stay with the organisation longer. Ultimately, it helps the employer earn the reputation as one that can attract and nurture talent.

You ask employers to give more incentives, rewards, money to employees. Doesn’t it annoy them?
There are many misconceptions in this topic. The big one is thinking that employee motivation is obviously money. What I have found from my research is that while money is important, what is quite crucial is how the employees are treated on a daily basis, how they are made to fulfil their role in the business, how they are involved in decision making, and how they are supported when they make a mistake.
Bill Gates once observed that you can tell a lot about the long term viability of any organisation by looking at the way they handle mistakes. If you reprimand and embarrass some one in public, he or she might not repeat it but what the organisation loses in terms of the employee’s loss of self-esteem, their willingness to take risks and the use of better judgment can never be got back.

Is convincing employers that motivation is not just about money the most difficult part of your job?
It is one but not the only one. Not all of us have the time to do things that we don’t think are important to us. It is therefore imperative that the job of managing is redefined to stress how important the organisation’s biggest resource — the people — are. You must tap into their level of commitment and maximise their performance by focusing on them.

For one who first prescribed 1001 ways to reward employees, does this mark a shift in your thinking — from material rewards to intrinsic motivation?
Yes, that is a very clear movement from the more tangible merchandise stuff and awards programmes to a more intangible level where employee relationships are built on a daily basis based on trust and respect.

Do you regard ‘Thank You’ as the single most important motivation tool?
It is one aspect. In a research culled from employees over the years ranking the importance of 52 types of recognition, it was shown that at least 36 of them don’t require a dime. Money has a motivational value alright but once your bills are paid, you start looking for the value part, whether you are valued by the employer, by whom you work with, and whether the work brings meaning to your life.
Right now, we have at least four generations of employees. Their values towards work are different. No employer makes a guarantee that you are going to work with them life-long. Nor can the employer expect blind loyalty simply because they gave the job. They must show how the job can lead you on in life.

With employee recognition programmes, aren’t you putting an extra burden on employers, asking them too much?
(Laughs).. Yes… But I am also saying that if you don’t have an employee recognition programme, don’t be surprised if your people leave. Walt Disney had made to commitment to himself that if he was to be in a managerial position, he will treat his employees as if they were his customers. IBM regards hiring as a million dollar decision. Indeed, you are hiring a potential; you must bring their best judgment and skills to this opportunity and make the most of it.

In today’s workplace dynamics isn’t it inevitable that the staff would move on? So where does that leave you as an employer who invests in spending time and money on your staff?
That is one of the ironies. The more you help people learn, develop and grow skills that by definition can be taken elsewhere, the more they are likely to stay with you and grow with you. They would feel they are in a special place and that they are valued for their contribution.

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