"Click and treat" for staff appreciation

Positive reinforcement improves employee morale

June 15, 2010 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

Several years after buying a practice in Saco, Maine, Dr. Sandra Mitchell had a team of mostly young staff she found to be generally bright, competent and reliable. But Mitchell felt the practice was suffering from a pattern of attitude problems among her employees – from petulant behavior to an uninspired approach to work.

The problem, Mitchell’s office manager had told her repeatedly, appeared to be simple:

“I do not compliment them on their job performance often enough,” Mitchell wrote in a Veterinary Information Network (VIN) message board post in April, asking for advice from fellow veterinarians.

The challenge of finding practical, effective and affordable ways to motivate employees is common to virtually all businesses. Countless management books offer tips on everything from designing perk programs to perfecting words of praise. In veterinary clinics, where many staff members take on a high level of responsibility and employer and employees interact all day long, staff morale and performance are constant concerns.

Motivating staff may be getting trickier as the millennial generation — those born between 1980 and 2000 — makes up an ever-larger share of the labor force. According to some studies, as well as popular perception, this generation was brought up on abundant praise and now needs it at work.

In the online discussion started by Mitchell’s post, VIN members offered a long list of approaches they’ve used to help keep employees happy and productive. One sends handwritten notes of appreciation. Another gives small gifts purchased at clearance sales. Food and drink seem to be universally effective.

“Shocking what a couple $20 pizzas can do for morale!” wrote Dr. Ginny Kunch, of Anchorage, Alaska.

Another VIN member, Dr. Michal Harris of Orange Park, Fla., uses a game she calls Blackout Bingo. She creates a bingo card but instead of numbers it lists 25 tasks such as “carry bag of food for elderly client” or “explain one procedure to five clients.” At the clinic’s monthly staff meeting, Harris gives a $100 gift certificate to the person who fills out the Blackout Bingo card first. If everyone has completed it by the staff meeting, they each get a $50 gift card. Harris said because of the variety of tasks, the employees can get help from anyone on staff for the game, and that it has helped to teach teamwork to younger staff.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to finish Blackout Bingo,” she said.

Another activity Harris described so appealed to Mitchell that she borrowed the idea: creating a “happy jar” in which employees place positive notes for colleagues.

“It’s such a simple thing but it has worked well for us,” said Harris. “I have to do that because I am one of those people to whom giving compliments doesn’t come naturally.  The happy jar changed our staff meetings. The happy jar is the last thing we do for our meeting, and it lets everyone leave on a good note.”

Harris said she can’t take credit for the happy jar, which was initiated by the clinic’s previous owner. When Harris worked there as an associate, she thought it was “stupid and juvenile,” but now she recognizes how effective it has been.

Mitchell was already taking many such steps to motivate her staff. She provided a monthly staff lunch, pizza on busy days, and often brought in snacks or ice cream. She gave out gift cards for exceptional performance, and even took staff on a winter ski trip and a summer overnight whitewater rafting trip.

Like Harris, it was having to dispense verbal praise that gave Mitchell trouble.

“It really is unnatural for me to do the all-day-long ‘good jobs,’ ” Mitchell said. Raised with what she describes as “a hard German work ethic,” Mitchell never expected to be complimented for merely fulfilling her responsibilities. She struggled with the idea that her employees did, apparently, need routine praise.

Figuring out how to handle millennial-generation workers has been a worry for baby-boomer managers for years. Journalist Ron Alsop, a longtime reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal, is a frequent speaker on the dynamics of the millennial generation and author of the 2008 book “The Trophy Kids Grow Up.” He writes on his website that “employers are facing some of the biggest management challenges they’ve ever encountered. They are trying to integrate the most demanding and most coddled generation in history into a workplace shaped by the driven baby-boom generation.”

According to David Bowles, Ph.D., co-author of the 2009 book “Employee Morale: Driving Performance in Challenging Times,” performance is the key outcome of high morale, and the reason it should be taken so seriously.

“Recognition is one of the most powerful drivers of morale,” said Bowles. “The whole aspect of morale is built around relationships and the connection we feel to the organization and the job. The relationship with the boss is key; without that being in good shape, morale at the individual and group levels becomes very difficult to achieve.  As part of this relationship we need to have some feedback to tell us how we're doing, a pat on the back when it’s good and guidance when it isn't so good. When we don't get it, especially the positive part, over time it demoralizes us.”

On the VIN discussion thread, members offered a number of suggestions on how to give praise. They included: trying to praise each person once a day; praising someone every time you leave an exam room; being sure to say 'thank you' and 'please'; and making your thanks more like praise when someone has dealt well with a difficult or upset client, poorly behaved pet or a difficult procedure.

In the discussion, Mitchell asked how to give more positive feedback to her employees. Following the suggestions worked: After starting to give compliments throughout the day rather than just for large issues, Mitchell noticed an improvement in staff attitude within 10 days, she said in an interview.

“I own the practice and my staff runs it,” said Mitchell. “Without them I couldn’t do any of the stuff that I do. It’s like a marriage: I have to give and they have to give. I have to make it comfortable for them to do their jobs. They just need constant hand-holding and back-scratching that I have not provided.”

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