The Dignity of Work – Part III The Power of Appreciation

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” Max DePree, American Businessman.

The number one factor in job satisfaction is not the amount of pay but whether or not the individual feels appreciated and valued for the work they do.” Gary Chapman, Paul White in The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.

What does a rose and a possible Union strike have to do with illustrating the power of appreciation? Stay tuned.

Having worked in the business world for forty-two years, it has been my experience that Managers and Leaders have a hard time saying thank you. I worked for over 25 different Leaders in my career with BellSouth/AT&T. Only about a third of them understood and utilized the power of appreciation as a tool in their managerial toolbox.

I will never forget August of 1998 when I learned just how powerful, expressing appreciation could be.

The Working Agreement between BellSouth and the Communication Workers of America (CWA) was set to expire at midnight on Saturday, August 1st. Negotiations between Labor and Management had been underway for months. Both sides did their usual dance around wage and benefit issues, with lots of huffing and puffing and threats of a strike. Management employees received training for their strike assignments. I was set to work as an Installer in Biloxi, MS, where the only thing more omnipresent than the sweltering humidity was the mosquitos. As the August 1st date approached, tensions mounted but seasoned managers knew not to panic; Agreements were never finalized until the last minute.

Earlier that year, I had been given the assignment as Director of the Georgia Network Centers for BellSouth. This organization had 24 different functions and 700 employees, almost all of whom were located at 100 Perimeter Center Place in Dunwoody, Georgia. 600 of the employees were non-management and represented by the CWA. Strikes in the BellSystem were rare. But negotiations always lasted until the final hour as neither side wanted to appear like they gave in too easily. Fortunately, late Saturday night, August 1st, I received a call announcing that a new Working Agreement had been signed. I could unpack my bags and put away my insect repellent. I would not have to work in Biloxi after all. Whew.

Anticipating that an agreement would be reached, I had contemplated how to transition my team back to normal operations. Contract negotiations had been brutal, and there was likely going to be a hangover of ill feelings among the workers.

I had an idea.

I would draft a positive, encouraging letter to all employees to be delivered the following Monday. The letter would thank them for their service, congratulate them on the new CWA Working Agreement, and express my genuine excitement at working with them in the coming year for our mutual success. Still, I felt something more tangible than a letter was needed.

That’s when I had a rose-colored inspiration of sorts.

First thing Monday, August 3rd, I ordered 600 single stem roses to be delivered the next day. At 10 am on Tuesday morning, I gathered my team of supervisors together. As they entered my conference room, their eyes opened wide. Jaws were dropping as their faces reflected a mix of confusion, amusement, and bewilderment. It was as if they all were asking themselves, “What the &%$#@ are all these roses doing on this table?” I took momentary pleasure at their shock, hoping our employees would have a similar response. Realizing the suspense needed to end, I explained my plan. Each supervisor would take a rose for each employee and a copy of my appreciation letter. Upon leaving this room, they were to distribute them immediately. The FTD parade began. By any account, it was an unusual sight to see 60 managers, each with a handful of roses and letters scurrying down the halls of one of America’s largest corporations.

I returned to my office and waited. My next walk-around would be at 2 pm. What I expected was a little less post-contract tension in the air. What I received blew me away.

Most of my employees were women. I walked into each office area to behold roses adorning every desk. Women who had never made eye contact with THE BOSS suddenly were looking up, smiling, and saying thank you. Dozens of women, with tears streaming down their cheeks, told me I was the first person ever to give them a flower. I got more hugs than a newborn baby. Even the men who received a rose were tickled. Stunned at first, they soon realized they could take the rose home to their wife. The atmosphere was electric.

To be honest, I felt pretty good about myself. Now I just needed to build on this gesture by being more consistent in expressing my appreciation.

I thought I had hit a home run with the roses. Eighteen months later, I realized it was actually a grand slam.

I received a new assignment in early 2000. Walking around the various offices telling folks goodbye, one of my female technicians, stood up, came over and hugged me. Nice gesture, I thought. Then she picked up something off her desk. It was her rose. The same one I had given her 18 months earlier. Now a faded brown, it had hardened into a petrified state. Handing the rose to me, she said, “I want you to know how much that single rose meant to me. I kept it on my desk as a reminder of how much I was appreciated.

Now it was my turn to be stunned. I knew that expressing appreciation was the right thing to do. I had no idea the depth of its impact. Encouraging words encourages people. Encouraging employees empowers an organization. Expressing appreciation promotes a positive corporate culture based on dignity and respect. Like WD-40 is a must for any toolbox, so too is a large bottle of Appreciation needed in a Managerial toolbox.

And who knows, it might also save you a bottle of insect repellant.

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