Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Newsletter Signup:

A long held, but incorrect, view is that all people are always motivated by money. We see this put into practice by ‘rewarding’ employees with small bonuses, t-shirts, meals, and the ever popular—gift cards. Many years ago, we heard a fast-rising leader mention that monetary tokens are inherently flawed; managers can only dole them out while there is money in the coffers. Put simply, gift cards are not sustainable. Instead, he urged us to consider writing short, but personal, hand-written thank-you cards.

This intuitive and wildly successful leader has some backing. Renowned organizational theorist and psychologist, Frederick Herzberg came up with the Motivator-Hygiene model to explain how handwritten thank-you notes could actually trump $50 Wal-Mart gift cards. He said that pay, trinkets, or a big office are Hygiene factors. When doled out, they can never lead to job satisfaction. Rather, not having them can lead to job dissatisfaction. Conversely, Herzberg suggested that leaders inspire when they market in non-financial tools, what he called motivational factors. These motivational factors involve job recognition, personal feedback, and opportunities for growth.

Taking five minutes each month to write two thank-you notes does just that. It is a personal way to provide job recognition and a sense of achievement. Maybe most importantly, they can be sustained over time—whether business is good or bad. Where $50 gift cards cannot survive a dip in the economy, handwritten thank-you notes are completely sustainable.

Show that you care enough to pull out the old pen and paper. You’ll be surprised how long your employees will keep that handwritten note. Everyone does gift cards these days. They’re cheap but expensive. Try thank-you cards. They are immensely valuable but inexpensive.

Each month, ELP offers a discrete and actionable leadership tool that can be deployed in 30 minutes or less. These activities are out-of-the box and dynamic learning activities (DLAs) that require some leadership swagger and boldness. This month, we offer the promise of field time.

At ELP, we build One Page Plans that combine strategy, personal development, and performance improvement. These One Page Plans are a cornerstone to our business model and without question account for revolutionary individual and team performance. In a review of the almost 1,000 One Pagers that we’ve built over the last several years, one theme was on almost 60% of them, that of field time.

So, we offer this leadership activity. Say NO to something and get out into the field, away from your desk, for at least 30 minutes per week. Even better, always go to the field with a three to five word purpose like ’evaluate safety’, ’engage and listen’, ’observe a high impact event’, or ’share my mission and top two priorities’. Focus on that purpose. Going to the field aimlessly doesn’t serve you—or those you lead—well. So, again, say NO and get out into the field. In a 40 or 50 hour week, we all can step away from the desk or the office to visit the field for at least 30 minutes. If you can’t, revisit our NO discussion from December 2014.

William Ury is the famous author of the best-selling book on negotiation, Getting to Yes. An authority on the skills and process of negotiation, he was a pivotal leader in the groundbreaking Harvard Negotiation Project. The penultimate message in his book is that it’s desirable and doable to get to YES when negotiating a contract, work scope, and even a small task. At ELP, however, we have our own groundbreaking thoughts on this topic. How about—what if NO is the desirable end, the better place to be? What if NO could make us better leaders and build stronger organizations? We believe it can. Actually, we love NO.

During our engagements, our leadership coaches will invariably ask a protégé during one of their sessions, “What are you going to say NO to this week?” Without exception, the leader looks confused and usually comes back with, “Are you telling me to tell someone, even my boss, NO?” Our answer is YES.

With a sample size approaching upwards of 25,000 leader engagement hours, we’ve found that most leaders are overworked. And when pressed, they often say that they work on the wrong things. They aren’t working on the hard stuff because too much minor work that delivers little value seems to always be in the way. The small and trivial can beat out the big and important. It seems like it always does—until we begin to say NO.

ELP leadership has a couple of thoughts here. First, we often fail to say NO because our brains are hardwired to please. Instead, we are built, even programmed, to say YES. Innocuous enough, but research shows that at McDonald’s they will simply ask us, “Would you like fries with that burger?” or “Could I get you an Apple Pie with that?” Our answer is more often than not a YES—simply because we don’t want to tell a stranger NO. If we can’t tell a stranger NO, how can we expect to tell a colleague or a supervising leader NO? It is hard. Guilt and a professional duty or calling to be everything to everyone drives us to say YES—even when it means that we can’t do the heavy lifting for heavy goals. Second, and because of the first point, we need to have the courage to say NO. Interestingly, we talked with one parent who said her personal and professional life got better when she learned to set boundaries and say NO in her work and home spheres. She felt less stressed, less burnt-out, and the important things in her life now had room and space to get fixed and grow. People initially rebuffed her and got angry, but she said that many respected her decisions to set appropriate boundaries. Lastly, saying NO to some things and saying YES to others forces us to deeply and critically evaluate our priorities. When everything is a YES, everything is important so nothing really is. Show us an organization that cannot list its priorities, and we will show you an under-performing organization—one that is working extremely hard to produce relatively little.

So, the immediate task at hand—one you shouldn’t say NO to—is asking: What am I going to say NO to this week in my personal and professional lives to focus on the important? Before you walk away from the screen, come up with your NO for the week. As a leader, be sure to provide the latitude to those you lead to have the freedom to say NO. Actually, be a world class leader and demand that they tell you NO at least once a week on one task or initiative.