I’ve been involved in many discussions lately about different ways to ‘appreciate’ employees. Perhaps you have too. Maybe you’ve noticed some of the same things I have:

  • Many companies and managers tend to think about ‘employee appreciation’ from a ‘rewards’ or ‘incentive’ standpoint and work very hard to create all kinds of programs focused on incentivizing people through money, presents or other means.
  • Many hours are spent and many debates occur about what ‘works best’: Extrinsic rewards? Intrinsic rewards? Thank you’s? Should ‘appreciation’ be private or public? What’s the EXACT best way to ‘appreciate’ people?
  • The time and effort put into these discussions and the resulting programs never seem to work: people complain that they feel their efforts aren’t ‘appreciated’ as much as others, managers don’t use the system, and HR spends a lot of time monitoring management’s use of the system and employees’ responses.

In my opinion, the problem with this narrow view of ‘appreciation’ is that these efforts often focus on the wrong areas: on the ‘ends’ – more efficiency, more productivity – of our own internal processes. And although it never seems to work out, we continue to focus there, believing that our employees will do more, and be more efficient and productive, if we just ‘appreciate’ them in exactly the right way.

I’d like to propose another way to look at it.

“Of all the assets your company has, the only ones that will ‘appreciate’ over time – become more valuable, that is – to your customers and your company – are your people.”

Think about it. The computers your customer service reps use now will be obsolete in two or three (maybe less) years). The fleet of cars your sales reps drive will depreciate by half as soon as they are driven off the lot. Not your people, though. The longer they stay with you, the more experience and knowledge they will have: about your business, about your systems, and about your customers. The longer your employees stay with you, the more they will ‘appreciate’ in value.

A little while ago, I spent some time with a group of customer service reps and their supervisors as they were working together to solve a tricky problem that their customers had been complaining about for quite a while. Working together this way to solve this kind of problem was a new experience for them. Each day, team members and supervisors alike expressed how excited and energized they were by the challenge: “This is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, because we’re not exactly sure how to solve the problem, but working together and learning how to figure it out is really exciting and fun.”

In my opinion, this is what ‘appreciating’ your people is really all about. Giving them the opportunity to work on challenging problems that are important to your customers and your company so that their their critical thinking and problem-solving skills are continuously developing.

No matter what job each of your employees does, each one comes to work each day with a desire to add value to your company by satisfying your customers. And no matter what job they do, they will be involved in solving problems for your customers on a regular basis. That is simply what work is all about.

Take for example, a customer service rep who receives a request to add a service for an account that isn’t usually possible, say a job-costing solution for payroll processing that’s available for large accounts but not small ones. In talking to your customer about the request, your service rep has a few options:

  1. Tell the customer it isn’t possible: ‘We can’t do that for your size account’. Not really what any customer wants to hear from their service provider. But, if you walk the floor of your organization, a pretty common one, I bet.
  2. Ask her supervisor what to do, and have the supervisor solve the problem by telling her if the service can be added or not. Sounds better, right? The customer doesn’t hear an immediate ‘no’ and the service rep finds out what to do in that situation. This may be better than the first alternative, but what happens next time a customer calls with a similar, but not-exactly-the- same type of request? In my experience, chances are the service rep will ask the supervisor what to do again, as her critical thinking skills haven’t been developed and she won’t relate the thinking to the similar request.
  3. The service rep can tell the customer that they are happy to figure out HOW to accommodate their request. And in my opinion, that’s exactly what all customers want to hear and what’s best for your company!

In my experience, employees who are taught to solve problems and then given the opportunity to solve the problems that arise on a day-to-day basis in their work learn to use their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities to respond to customer requests, no matter what they are. Teaching your employees problem-solving skills allows them to add more value for your customers and company, and this is exactly what allows them to ‘appreciate’ over time!

So what can you do to really ‘appreciate’ your employees?

  • Focus not just on the ‘ends’ or rewards and incentives for completed tasks, but on the ‘means’ by actively teaching them how to solve the problems that their customers bring to them as part of their daily work and interactions.
  • ‘Ask’ your employees questions rather than ‘telling’ them what to do when customer service problems arise. When we ask people questions, we challenge them to think in new and different ways. If we just tell them what to do, we haven’t helped them develop their problem-solving capabilities.
  • Actively look for ways to involve your employees in solving the bigger, strategic problems your organization is having. They may not know how to solve the problem right now, but face it, neither do you! Working together will allow you to hear their ideas, expose them to yours, and engage them in the most meaningful work of all – adding value to your customers and your company.

I’m going to say it again: the only assets your company has that will ‘appreciate’ in value are your people. And they will only ‘appreciate’ in value if you put in the time and energy necessary to teach them the problem-solving skills that will develop their critical thinking skills. In my experience, that is truly what ‘appreciating’ your employees means. When we ‘appreciate’ your employees this way, your customers will be happier and more satisfied, and so will they!

What is your company doing on an ongoing basis to ‘appreciate’ your employees?