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Judith M. Bardwick Headshot

Employee Appreciation and Toxic Leaders

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Continuing my interview with the famous literary critic, Robert Morris, here are my responses to his questions regarding (1) How to make employees feel appreciated, and (2) What to do if working for a toxic leader.

Morris: In all of the major research studies of which I am aware, employees rank feeling appreciated among what is most important to them at work. How can organizations do more, specifically, to make their people feel more appreciated than many of them now do?

Bardwick: Bob, this is a question I explore at length in my most recent book, One Foot Out the Door. The best worst example of making people feel unappreciated today lies in the casualness of large lay-offs even when there isn't a financial crisis. That is a message to employees that they are expendable, interchangeable, easily dismissed and replaced, often by younger, less experienced and cheaper employees. The essential message being conveyed to people is, You are worthless. What an incredibly dumb thing that is for management to say!

The ways in which management can express appreciation for an employee's contribution are without end; the key is to act in ways that communicate: Thanks! That was a great job! We can really count on you! It's great having you here!

While some people love having plaques to hang on their personal Wall of Fame and they adore being acknowledged at a formal Recognition Banquet and some people are only interested in money, I find the most effective forms of recognition are personal and either spontaneous or very close in time to a significant accomplishment. One of the most endearing gifts I ever received was a beautiful book on the ancient Anasazi and a box of shards, pieces of ancient pottery, from people at the University of New Mexico after I had lectured there and mentioned I had a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.

An easy and very effective sign of appreciation, for example, is a letter from someone's boss -- or that person's boss -- signaling appreciation for very specific accomplishments. In itself, that's effective. It's even more effective when, for example, flowers are sent to that person's family thanking the family for their generous gift of that person's time.

There are books that cite 100 ways to praise people or 1,000 ideas for recognition. I think the answer to your question is a short phrase and not a long list. Whether literally or symbolically, say thanks! and in a timely fashion.

My personal favorite expression of appreciation came on a miserably cold winter day in Michigan when my boss came to my office carrying a flower arrangement. It was not my birthday... nor the anniversary of the day I went to work for him... and nothing very special had just been accomplished. He walked to a florist and back to my office in awful weather just to say, "It's wonderful having you here."

What's necessary is exquisitely simple: in one way or another, express your gratitude meaningfully and personally for what someone has done and your real pleasure in having them around.

It's a mystery to me why so many people are stupidly miserly with praise and thanks. But they are.

Morris: Jean Lipman-Blumen has much of value to say about "toxic leaders." Based on your own experience and what you have observed in countless organizations with which you have been associated, what is your advice to anyone who works for one?

Bardwick: In a word, QUIT.

The likelihood of a toxic leader changing into a people-oriented human being is... zero. Or, to be cute, if you're working for one, keep one foot out the door and keep looking for something better.

I well remember flying into Phoenix to meet with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company for the first time. After a few standard pleasantries we sat down at a table and he grabbed my right forearm tightly. I want to kill them, he said, I want to kill them all. He was talking about his employees.

You don't want to work for a jerk like that -- and neither did I.