How leaders have the power to make their team feel like heroes

Our manufacturing plant was putting a unit out the door every 6 seconds — and every one of them was defective. I was part of a design team that had updated the design of our product to comply with new Federal safety requirements, and while the product was perfectly safe, it just didn’t always work.

A few customers had sent back units that weren’t working right, but we couldn’t figure out why they were failing. The failure mode couldn’t be recreated in the lab, so we were totally in the dark! We couldn’t go back to the old design, it didn’t meet the safety requirements. So the factory was putting out products that usually worked fine, but sometimes would refuse to work at all!

praise at work

The pressure was mounting. We knew we were putting out a defective product and the “big bosses” wanted daily updates on our progress. I came in early one morning and sat down to test the circuit again, like I had been doing for weeks, but this time it failed! I reset the unit and went through the test and it failed again! This was a huge breakthrough. By re-creating the failure in the lab, we could now start isolating the problem and looking for a solution.

My boss brought me with him to the Daily Update that day. He let me explain what happened and what we were doing to solve the problem. We still didn’t have a fix, but everyone realized the magnitude of the breakthrough and the company President personally came over and thanked me for my work! I felt like a million bucks that day. I wasn’t just some engineer slaving away in the lab, I was a hero!

If you are a business owner, manager, or boss of any kind, you have that power. You can make people feel like heroes.

Our team members come to work for more than just a paycheck. They are also looking for the opportunity to demonstrate that their lives have meaning. As a part of that quest, they are looking to those around them to reflect back to them that they are effective; that what they are doing is actually making a difference. Any of us can look at a to-do list at the end of the day and (hopefully) see that a bunch of stuff has been crossed off; but just crossing things off of a list isn’t really very fulfilling. What matters much more is esteem, praise, thanks, and recognition from peers and, especially, from bosses.

praise at work

Teddy Roosevelt in the “Bully Pulpit” “I have no idea what the American people think. I only know what they should think.” Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-95886)

Teddy Roosevelt called it his “bully pulpit“. Bully had a different meaning in that era; it’s meaning was more like the way we use “awesome” today (think of the phrase “bully for you”). Teddy knew that if he looked interested in something, other people would be interested in that thing too. He could focus the attention of the government and perhaps even the country, just by focusing his attention on something — by allocating resources to it — by rewarding those who were working on it.

We live in a more complicated world than Teddy did, with many more distractions; but as owners, bosses, and managers, we still have that kind of power. When we pay attention to things (or people), or when we praise things (or people), other folks in our organization will follow. When we give praise at work, our words and our attention will be amplified by the whole organization.

So, when the bosses chose to have a daily meeting to review the status of our design problem, the urgency to find a fix increased. Low level engineers (like I was at that time) responded to that urgency by coming in early, testing and retesting, to find that fix.

Some leaders are really good at using this “bully pulpit” to influence their teams. When someone is making a good point, and the boss wants to emphasize it, he might ask that person to restate it, or he might ask some clarifying questions. The leader’s attention to that point is like underlining it for everyone else. I know another leader who writes hand-written thank you notes to her team. She sends the note to their home address so that they open the note in front of their family; then the whole family gets to share the appreciation she is sending. The whole family knows that the work of the team member is valued and making a difference.

Words aren’t the only way to communicate importance. What meetings do you choose to attend, and what meetings do you choose to skip? What emails do you respond to and which do you let go? These are all signals — that your team is watching — about what’s important to you.

How are you using your “bully pulpit”? What messages are you sending with your words, attention and time? How do you give praise at work?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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