Valuing Contribution: A Uniquely Powerful Component of Corporate Culture

Basic human nature seeks recognition for effort input and achievements attained, especially when personal commitment has exceeded reasonable expectations. Thus an employee craves appreciation for contributions, feeling valued and reacting constructively when this need is satisfied, while experiencing disenchantment and reduced motivation if acknowledgement and praise are not forthcoming. Yet, in today’s business world, too easily thanks and positive feedback are simply forgotten – the victims of time pressures, remote working and a misguided belief that periodic tangible rewards form an adequate substitute.

Where leaders set greater store by personal commendations to individuals and teams, the payback through workers’ re-invigoration and enhanced loyalty is classically highly impressive. Few things are more incentivising than knowing that one’s endeavours are rightly seen as playing a part in supporting corporate, local and direct line management successes.

Valuing rather than rewarding

Traditionally, employers have used tangible rewards – such as salary increases, bonuses and titles – to symbolise their satisfaction with people’s performance. However, contemporary workers desire more personalised, intangible indicators of recognition from their leaders: to feel valued and appreciated. Striking levels of additional inspiration and productivity result, when an enriched sense of worth develops.

For a business and its leaders to demonstrate commitment to their staff’s success, in an effective manner, can be challenging. The response to material and perceptible recompense is muted once a reasonable standard of living has been established. Even privileges such as improved office location and furnishings, and other symbols of advanced status, have limited impression in an environment that, overall, is acceptable. Modern stimulants in the workplace go beyond conventional compensation systems, into less definable realms, involving acknowledgement of abilities and contribution.

Employees seek personalised signs that they are valued. Although some elements of this need can be satisfied through pay and perks, often the constraints of corporate policies and practices prove prohibitive. At one end of the scale lies the public sector approach with published salary scales and documented rules for promotion. At the other end sits the private sector, at times shrouded in secrecy – so that comparisons can’t be made – or alternatively over-formulaic – in that monetary remuneration is calculated from tangible outcomes, like sales won; either way, the impact of personal effort and skill on an award can be questionable. Hence finance as a motivator is too influenced by factors outside the control of the individual, such as opportunity.

So how is the elusive state of ‘valued’ achievable? An inner need has to be addressed, raising self-esteem. The simple expression of thanks – or praise – where it is due, plays a fundamental role . Being involved, listened to and consulted – empowered and enabled to grow – nourishes the deep desire for approval. Expressing respect for, and allegiance to, an employee comes from the implicit rather than the explicit. This can make it difficult for many managers to get right: they seek to do something quantifiable when more subtle, private actions are called for.

The key to making a person feel valued is to act in a manner that gives assurance, in whatever form is recognisable to that specific individual. This may seem to open up a cottage-industry in character analysis but, in reality, the same handful of actions is sought by the majority of workers. Top of the list is the plain ‘thank you’, ‘well done’, ‘much appreciated’, ‘couldn’t have done this without your help’ communication.

Typically next most important is offering opportunities for growth. This feature takes different forms – dependent on personality, capability and aspirations. For the less able, guidance and coaching provide sufficient. For the intellectually frustrated, enabling access to channels for further expansion of skills, knowledge and self-development is the answer. Others crave quality, challenging work and the chance to use their gifts – quite possibly through creativity and innovation. The ambitious long to realise company-ascending goals, advancing their career within an organisation; they want to be given responsibility. So, while immediate feedback on performance reassures the task orientated, those keen for power need to feel that they’ve had influence and are supported in progression through hierarchical ranks.

Symbolic of valuing people is operating open lines of communication, sharing corporate and market information and involving employees in decision-making. This two-way street of knowledge sharing presents a win-win situation for a business and its workers. Members of staff – sensing trust and respect – operate with integrity towards both their leaders and peers – disclosing ideas, contacts and prospects once confident that credit will be fairly assigned.

To consistently deliver useful contributions, individuals have to experience healthy levels of self-importance, and partnership, within their organisation – generating personal and corporate pride. The value chain extends right through teams and departments, to embrace the entire business. Vitally, no entity – person or team – should consider itself to be a replaceable part.

Employees look for freedom to act within an atmosphere of approval and trust, subject to reasonable boundaries. Any level-headed character understands that a sensible balance has to be established between personal freedom and organisational controls. Embedded in these freedoms is respecting diversity – another angle on the valuing theme. Whether related to age, gender or ethnicity, to life style or working style, to requirements for flexibility in working patterns or locations, today’s workforce expects its employer to demonstrate fairness towards everyone, as long as acceptable contribution is returned. This is now generally termed ‘valuing the difference’.

Praise can matter most after efforts, however good, fail to yield the sought-after results. In good times, self-actualisation comes automatically – the satisfaction in a job well done. It is when doing the right thing, although industriously, doesn’t win the deal -or meet the impossible deadline – that appreciation from others means so much. Thus there is an important differentiation to be made between commitment and overall achievement. If input and output don’t align, then the ensuing de-motivation requires the boost of positive encouragement from leadership, even though targeted outcomes weren’t met. On such occasions, it can prove difficult for those of higher rank to show gratitude to those of lower rank – acknowledging endeavours rather than attainments – given that the disappointment is probably felt equally by all involved.

Many decades ago, Maslow identified the ‘hierarchy of needs’ and there has been wide-spread acceptance since that this framework is especially applicable to the workplace. Where pay rewards are satisfactory – which research shows is largely the case for those in the business world – people seek fulfilment of social, ego and self-actualisation needs. The organisation that addresses these personal requirements – through recognition and the opportunity to realise one’s potential – has truly established a valuing culture.

Proportionate and timely appreciation

For an employee to feel valued, praise and demonstrations of recognition need to be timely and – most importantly – proportionate. Workers privately gauge their output, drawing comparisons with their colleagues. They expect appreciation of efforts to be relative to contribution. Where equity is perceived, respect is nurtured; conversely if gratitude appears overly generalised or undeserved, then it will ‘fall on deaf ears’ and its influence will be neutral – indeed motivation may be negatively impacted.

Most businesses today operate a formal, procedure-driven performance management system, whereby employees are appraised once a year – sometimes in a fairly improvised manner, sometimes against defined objectives. Rarely is this process sufficiently satisfactory to raise enthusiasm. Where objectives have been set, too often these are over standardised and lack measurability; even where more skill and care has been applied, times move on and objectives can quickly become out-of-date. Although well intentioned and always a worthwhile exercise in bringing manager and worker together – to assess individual effort and attainments – the typical corporate performance review is usually too infrequent, inflexible and overly mechanistic. In a world of rapid change, a more effective system for communicating views on personal success is called for.

A recent refinement of the annual or bi-annual performance appraisal is the introduction of more ‘ad hoc’ assessments, for example at the completion of specific shorter-term assignments. This adjustment certainly has the ability to improve timeliness – an overall positive – but is still inclined to lack the impact of targeted, spontaneous praise. To be driven, a person needs to feel truly valued by immediate managers and organisational leaders. Responsibility for conveying the important messages that generate a sense of worth – in a timely and appropriate manner – has to lie with each separate leader, if an elevated state of high-regard is to be attained. This means applying praise where it’s due and, equally, not where it isn’t due.

For thanks to have a constructive influence, there may need to be clarity over the topic of a commendation: “you provided excellent input to that bid”; “you delivered that presentation very well”; “your call-closure rate is well above average”. Although broader acclaim does have its place: “I’m impressed by how you operate”; “I can rely on you”; “you’re a good egg”. What is important is that the recipient can see that the tribute was duly earned and that the words aren’t hollow. Generalisations, in the sense of emailing a common complimentary message to a whole team, will be counter-productive if some individuals did impressive amounts and others were lazy or lacklustre. Such non-specific, disproportionate credit can easily do more harm than good. While correctly focused recognition is uplifting, when a leader is perceived to be insincere, to have misjudged contributions or to simply have given too little thought to expressing appreciation, the likely result is de-motivation.

Leaders must measure input and express their good opinions accordingly – with consideration to reasonable expectations. Staff can only participate relative to their knowledge, skills, experience, status, empowerment and such like. Thus evaluations of performance have to fairly balance impacting factors.

Coupled with the role of positive feedback in ensuring that employees feel valued, discipline also plays a part – by demonstrating even-handed and just treatment. The application of ‘punishments’ to non-performers indirectly enhances the well-being of hard-workers. Though achieving the rewards of involvement, opportunity and approval are the finest indicators of regard, to be free of criticism can also be construed as affirmation of respect. So, if a business avoids the issue of dealing with poor performers, much wider consequences may result: not only is deficient delivery allowed to continue unchecked but high-quality staff can become disenfranchised. The reported reluctance of many public sector organisations to address, adequately, the matter of employees who consistently fail to meet objectives, perhaps requires greater consideration. There is a risk that contributions across a broad spectrum of the workforce may be adversely impacted.

Even though creation of a valuing culture has little to do with tangible remuneration, giving disproportionate visible rewards to those deemed less deserving will inevitably be damaging. The conscientious member of staff compares their own inputs and outputs with those of others, and then expects to see suitably matched recognition – intangible and material. Clearly, an employee perceives a situation to be equitable when people supplying similar efforts receive comparable compensations. If unfairness is discerned, the most industrious and dedicated workers are likely to withhold some of their endeavours, either consciously or unconsciously, until a situation is brought into better balance.

So, an organisation increases its effectiveness through the communication of proportionate, spontaneous appreciation from individual leaders to deserving followers. At all times, but especially immediately after periods of high demand and stress, the reassurance of feeling valued is particularly influential, offering substantial power to re-energise. Non-solicited praise – timely and genuine – is a simple, high-impact tool.

Leader-follower disparity

Typically, tangible rewards are more important to leaders than to their followers. The average person today – for whom reasonable levels of pay, working conditions and job security prevail – perceives being valued as of considerably greater consequence than material remuneration. This disparity can create unintended detrimental consequences, if needs for appreciation are left unmet. Management figures, who may simply have little comprehension of the necessity for regularly vocalising satisfaction with their staff’s performance, are left perplexed.

Higher management and director roles are still predominantly held by stereotypically ambitious men, for whom outward symbols of success are greatly prized – demonstrating status. Indeed, the drive to attain such symbols undoubtedly plays a significant part in propelling single-minded, determined individuals up the corporate ladder. In contrast, the desire for approval and recognition – sought by a large sector of the workforce – could be argued to hold back the climb upwards.

The key to making sense of these disparate behaviours is to look at the variation in factors that bring about personal fulfilment – what Maslow refers to as ‘self-actualisation’. If this advanced state is reached – for person A – through acquisition of titles, an elevated salary and increased power, then he will focus his energies into activities which maximise obtainment of these items. Alternatively, person B may require quite different – less tangible – indicators, in order to feel that his dreams and potential have been realised: to inwardly acknowledge that he is being challenged to his limits; to be wanted for inclusion in high profile prospects; to be highly regarded in relation to  knowledge and talents; to be valued. Person B will therefore gravitate towards situations that address his specific needs, choosing to work for organisations – and with people – who reward in his preferred manner.

For any business to thus attract and retain a high quality workforce, which is content to continually give its best, it is essential that leaders understand the importance of appreciation to the majority of their employees. One influencing dynamic is confidence: the average follower experiences lower levels of self-belief than the average leader, so approval is sought more often. But a more subtle factor could also sometimes be involved: personality types.

The most commonly used personality type indicator within business environments is that of Myers-Briggs – based on Jung’s theory of psychological types. One of the four scales used by Myers-Briggs concerns the E-I dichotomy, where E refers to Extravert and I refers to Introvert. In Myers-Briggs’ terms, Extraverts focus on the outer world of people and activity, while Introverts focus on their own inner world of ideas and experiences. Importantly, Extraverts direct their energy outwards and receive energy by interacting with people; Introverts direct their energy inwards and receive energy by reflecting on their thoughts and feelings.

Studies present a range of percentage splits between Extraverts and Introverts within general populations – varying across nationalities; generalising to a 50-50 ratio in the business community is not unreasonable. Similarly the E:I ratio of leaders to followers is quoted with wide variance. What is certain is that there are many Introverts in top jobs – in some organisations up to 90% – while significant numbers of followers are Extraverts. Well managed, this difference can be enhancing, with complimentary qualities widening thinking and styles. Poorly managed – which quickly becomes the case in over-pressured situations – the mismatch results in team members feeling isolated and unappreciated, damaging motivation. The inward focused, strongly Introvert leader naturally gives little away, and commonly fails to understand or address the needs of those employees whose Extravert personality craves interaction. So significant is this disparity that whole books have been written on the topic, advising Introvert leaders on how to overcome their natural disinclination to engage.

Classic examples of divergent behaviours are seen in communication styles: Introverts prefer writing while Extraverts prefer talking. Likewise Introverts learn through reflection, Extraverts learn best by discussing. An all-too-frequent scenario comprises the capable Extravert, initially highly energised and committed, experiencing ever-declining motivation, as feelings of isolation set in – the result of management disregard. The culpable manager – grateful that the able employee can operate without supervision – assumes that his ‘hand off’ approach shows trust. Ironically, the outward-facing worker interprets the intended compliment as desertion and lack of appreciation.

Given that most people better understand those of similar personality and values, it is no surprise that many are inclined to employ and promote those in their own image. Thus leaders may be subconsciously predisposed to replicate their type across the higher ranks, reinforcing any tendency for leader-follower disparity if this already exists.

A multitude of opportunities for misunderstandings exist between leaders and followers unless the former recognise, and compensate for, any inherent reticence or inattentiveness towards expressing the extent to which they value contributions. A small investment of effort, appropriately targeted, frequently provides huge payback.

Turning words and conduct into profit

People select their behaviours in order to meet their needs and goals. If key needs are being met, through explicit injections of appreciation, then employees focus on productive work, rather than on seeking approval. To maintain effective enthusiasm, a culture of respecting and valuing people must prevail, where simple but sincere thanks are readily and instinctively imparted.

Motivation comes from within and if suitably stimulated, through positive feedback, the results can be staggering. Instead of barely meeting baseline expectations, valued employees can double their contribution. And the ratio of ‘leader input’ to ‘employee return’ can be vastly lopsided: just a morsel of appropriate and timely acclaim can generate volumes of goodwill. Small investments of effort – on the part of leaders – yield substantial dividends, and when workers find that their good endeavours are acknowledged, in a manner that enriches them, they will continue to respond gainfully.  Thus it is counter-productive for any busy leader to neglect personal feedback, believing there is insufficient time for such niceties. Opportunities for so easily winning loyal and diligent followers are rare.

Furthermore, fulfilled workers retain corporate allegiance, creating reduced levels of staff turn-over. Retention of enthusiastic, aligned people is a bonus to any company: ensuring ongoing stability while enabling absorption of small injections of new thinkers. These latter can catalyse change – rather than generating confusion – when entering a confident and dedicated environment.

If not valued, employees will drift into unhelpful behaviours which require ‘punishment’ in order to re-establish profitable conduct. Thus an inappropriate environment can take considerable management time and energy to monitor and direct. Conversely, maintaining a valuing culture – once brought into being – takes less time and inherently acts as a mechanism to ensure good performance by workers.

Functioning with a valuing culture is particularly important in a struggling business, or one which is likely to be less respected by staff or the marketplace. Where workers feel proud to be part of a specific organisation, where just gaining and retaining a job in an enterprise feels like a prize, then even being a small cog in the wheel can be satisfaction enough. But when times are harder for an employer, offering appreciation at an individual level grows in importance, with explicit acknowledgement starting to become increasingly necessary and desired. Any company can suddenly find itself dropping unexpectedly into declining popularity through, for example, government cuts, reducing revenue, bad publicity or take-over; so every company should stay mindful of upholding a culture that, through minimal effort, enables it to prosper.

Valued employees sustain a successful organisation

People are at the heart of any business – its outward facing persona, as well as its boiler-room where real profitable work is undertaken. These people – employees – have to be fed a diet of whatever satisfies their needs, in order that they show ongoing commitment and loyalty to their organisation, especially when times are tough. For past generations – when standards of living were lower – pay, job security, working conditions and other basic ‘hygiene’ / physiological necessities overshadowed higher-order requirements. However, nowadays, employees desire realisation of deeper aspirations: to feel respected; to discern true appreciation of efforts; to achieve a sense of self fulfilment.

A successful organisation maintains a corporate culture of valuing – demonstrating timely and proportionate appreciation of employee endeavours through leaders’ instinctive recognition of individual contributions. The resultant commitment engendered in the workforce then plays a sizable role in the realisation of corporate goals.