Rewarding and Recognizing Employees, with Dr. Bob Nelson

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Dr. Pelè: (00:05)
Hello everyone. This is Dr. Pele with WorkProud, and I am so excited today because I am talking with one of the leading authorities in the area of workplace employee recognition, employee engagement. This is the buzz of the business world today. Is how can we take employees, help them to be happy, feel fulfilled, feel engaged, and somehow turn that and connect that with business profitability. This is the rage today. So I am so pleased to be speaking with one of the top experts worldwide in this field, Dr. Bob Nelson, how are you doing today?

Dr. Bob: (00:45)
I’m doing excellent. Thank you so much.

Dr. Pelè: (00:47)
All right. It’s awesome to be speaking with you. Where exactly are you located right now? Where are you calling in from?

Dr. Bob: (00:53)
I am based in Sunny San Diego.

Dr. Pelè: (00:56)
Awesome. Dr. Bob, we are meeting here in this conversation at a very crucial time. COVID 19 has changed the game with respect to leadership, team management, workplace cultures, and things like that. But a lot of things still stay the same. And I would love for you to help us define the core problems of employee engagement, things like creating the right cultures. What exactly is the problem that organizations are dealing with?

Dr. Bob: (01:29)
Well, the problem I’ll probably say just a little bit broader in terms of people. Right now, it’s extremely hard to get the right people, the people that have the skills that you need in your company. It’s hard to hold onto them. So it’s hard to attract them. It’s hard to hold on them and I think the part of doing that is you can actually get more out of what you’re paying for, if you do things right. I put it in those three buckets. If you do, why people are interested in recognition and engagement, and related concepts is they’re grasping for what would give them a magic culture that gives them an edge in the marketplace. Where people want to come work for them. And they want to be doing the things that they’re doing and they want to serve their customers. And I think it’s very definitive that you can press the right buttons to get those results.

Dr. Pelè: (02:32)
Maybe we can scale back a little bit for anyone listening today who may have had doubts about the connection between engaged employees or happy employees or proud employees and business profitability. There are people who actually believe and implement that every day of their lives, and there are others who wonder, wait a second, just get the work done. I’m not here to make you proud of anything. I’m not here to make you engaged, just deliver results. How would you explain the link between just human capital, from a culture perspective and actual business profitability?

Dr. Bob: (03:10)
Well, I think that’s a very traditional, old school way of thinking that we’re paying you for results, and so you worry about being happy on the weekend. That’s not our… We’re not in charge of that. I don’t care about that. I just want you to get the job done. A lot of companies operate under that principle, but, over time things have changed significantly. And for most employees, they want more out of their job than just a paycheck. Now, if you don’t have a paycheck, you want a paycheck. And of course we all want more money, of course. But money is not the end all. Once you can pay your bills and live a standard of living to which you’re accustomed, you quickly turn to other factors, sense of team, being asked your opinion, being involved in decisions that affect you, having a pride of where you work and the work you do and who you serve.

Dr. Bob: (04:20)
So the job and the company you work for, the organization you work for become part of something larger than yourself. Where you’re helping to achieve larger goals than yourself that impact society and impact the country and impact your community. Maybe don’t start that when we’re, first job and we got student loans or whatever, but I say typically, again, once you’re able to make enough money, usually someone after five years where they’re into a routine, they could cover their bills, they turn to other things as being more important. So, it’s not all just money.

Dr. Pelè: (04:59)
Yeah. Yeah. In fact, I can remember even my own personal experiences where I was a leader in a team, and I remember speaking one on one with someone and telling them what a great job they did about one specific thing, and their demeanor, their entire outlook just changed. You could see the smile on their face. All of a sudden work was fun. They felt like a hero, just because of that little bit of recognition, which you’ve mentioned as one of the important factors we’ll talk about here today. But, as we just examine this issue and this problem some more Dr. Bob, what is it that works against making it easy to create cultures of engagement? And as you said, recognition. Are there some mindset issues that both leaders and maybe even employees have to overcome to be able to make such a culture possible?

Dr. Bob: (05:53)
Yes there is. And you hit the big one. If we’re paying you that should be enough, but other mindset issues are, I feel that as people are promoted and they become managers, their focus changes. As they become executives their focus changes as well. So every company that starts knows that people are critically important. If idea is going to work or not work based on this team, making it happen. But if you’re in a larger company and you, a lot of times executives tend to see their people as a line item on the budget, and their job is to squeeze that number, and now that partly will affect their bonus. And so, the human aspect gets a little bit lost and they forget the importance they have in other people’s lives. For any manager and any employee-employer relationship, the manager’s the most important person for the employer in the workspace.

Dr. Bob: (06:57)
And I find in my experience a lot of managers forget that, and they just feel that they’re doing their job. And by the way, taking time with you is taking time away from the job they’re trying to do. So we’re trying to minimize that. And it’s very easy to lose sight of the importance of that relationship and taking time for the person. In my doctoral research on the topic of recognition and why managers do or don’t do it, I got a real good bead for what was going on with those managers that both did it and didn’t do it. For those that didn’t do it, on top of the list was they didn’t know how to do it well. So they’re afraid of looking silly or, if I tell someone to their face they did a great job, if you’re introverted it’s very hard to do.

Dr. Bob: (07:50)
And so a whole string of reasons. They often didn’t believe it had the power that the research indicates. Recognizing others, you get your word is the greatest management principle known to mankind. Every word. What you recognize, what you incentivize, you’ll get more of hands down guaranteed. And so they know it’s important. Yeah people are important. Okay I got it. But they forget how important it is for their role in that relationship, and how when they come into work, everyone’s looking to see what mood they’re in and what’s… We’re looking to hear on an ongoing basis. What’s important. How are we doing as a company, as a department?

Dr. Bob: (08:37)
How am I doing as an employee? And if you never address either of those then they’re a little, powering without knowing. They’re a little bit lost and they’re constantly searching for that. So then they start to read into your emails, or start to read into comments that are made, that maybe the intention isn’t there. So it’s a big one to bring leaders front and center saying, “No, this stuff is important to people and don’t take my word on it, ask them, ask them. Ask them. And I’ve asked them. I’ve spoken in every state in the country and around the world, and the six continents, and often when I have a group and I have some time I’ll do an exercise and I’ll just ask them, “Hey, think of the last time you felt special. Last time you enjoyed where you worked and you loved your job, and you’re excited about coming to work, any part of that? What gave you that feeling? What was said or done? Who was involved? What were the circumstances as best you can recall?”

Dr. Bob: (09:50)
Talk to the person next to you, and I’ll say, okay this here what you came up with, and let me tell you. 99.9% of things that are shared have nothing to do with money, have nothing to do with promotions, unless you were just promoted yesterday. So it’s a recency thing. Everyone always mentions the personal, simple, thanks for job well done, that came from someone they hold high regard. Starting with their manager, but maybe an upper manager, maybe a coworker who knew how hard you were working on that project. Well, you got it done. Way to go, and 99.9% that’s what-

Dr. Pelè: (10:30)
What a statistic.

Dr. Bob: (10:33)
Maybe a note, maybe an email, maybe the manager said something in front of the management team, of it. Everything they did and didn’t cost much of any money. So I do that so they could see for themselves, oh, well, I guess you’re right. Yeah. They think about their own life when they feel all special and excited. It’s not the number on their paycheck.

Dr. Pelè: (11:02)
It’s the feelings. Yeah. It’s the people. A lot of people say things like, people are our greatest assets and it sounds to me like what you’re trying to say is, make it so, because it’s one thing to say-

Dr. Bob: (11:15)
This is asset appreciation.

Dr. Pelè: (11:17)
Yeah. Let’s do some asset appreciation. Dr. Bob, on that note, I would love to know what put you personally, on this path. There are so many professions in the world. You’re a scholar, you could have been anything. What puts you on the path toward people and the focus on this particular topic in your research and even in your life?

Dr. Bob: (11:41)
Well, I’ve always been interested in motivation and why do people do what they do? And my undergrad was psychology. But I think it was a graduate school class. I was taking at the Peter Drucker Management School, where the professor was talking about, control systems, as a control systems class, and different types of control systems. And one of them was informal control systems. And, I remember in the middle of the lecture, he said “It’s proven as these principles are, that you get what you reward and paying attention will get you more of the results. They really haven’t been applied that much to business. And I remember thinking to myself, I want to do something about that. And I did. When I got home from late at night, I typed out a letter to a publisher in New York and said, I got an idea for a book about how you can better recognize people.

Dr. Bob: (12:43)
And I don’t want to lecture people. I want to just give them real life examples from all over, companies of all sizes and types and lay it out, so it’s a mortgage board where you open anywhere and you see the principle in practice. And I think, because people aren’t doing this, they’re not getting it. And I think if we give them a broader choice point, they will see it and get it. And that became 1,001 ways to reward employees, which is now it’s 64th printing and sold 2 million copies.

Dr. Bob: (13:15)
So, it was a simple thing, but I guess I maybe should put a light on it in a different way. And, people in the driver’s seat for them to say, to look at and say, well, we could do this one, or why don’t we try this one, or let’s give it to a committee and have them decide what they want to do. Or one of my favorite is, we take the book and pass it around to my immediate employees, have them initial ideas alike, and we turn it into a motivation handbook for our own team. And, if someone does a great job I could surprise them with something I know that they selected. Wow. Game on.

Dr. Pelè: (13:54)
What I love about that story is that it reminds me of one of my favorite sayings which is, a leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way and therefore can show the way. And so you’ve literally lived with this challenge of how do I solve this motivation challenge, and you’ve come up with these solutions and we’re really excited to learn more.

Dr. Bob: (14:16)
I love that, the quote you just did. Very powerful, and I also, I have one that kind of, not as strong as yours, but it’s one of the big gaps with managers and leaders is the knowing-doing gap. They know they should treat their people right. Most of the time they think they are, but if you ask their people they’re saying, “what?” They’re not getting it. They’re not seeing it. And maybe the manager used to do it when he started seven years ago, but he’s not doing it. She’s not doing it anymore because she’s too busy, type thing. And so, closing the knowing-doing gap. You know it’s right, make sure you’re doing it, to constantly show your employees that it’s important.

Dr. Pelè: (15:04)
Well, I can tell you, first of all, I’m aware that you’ve written upwards of 31 books. You’ve basically been either taught by or have worked with, or worked for Peter Drucker, Ken Blanchard, Marshall Goldsmith, come on. You’re at the top of the food chain here.

Dr. Bob: (15:21)
So I’m incredibly fortunate and they’re all great people. And I think one of the things I was drawn to in all of them to be honest, is that at the core of it, they had simple insights that were, almost common sense but not common practice. And they had a mission to put out that reality to redefine, if you didn’t know about this, you got to catch up because this really does work. And each of them had that. Had some simple insights, well documented and showed people how to do them. And so that impacted me greatly too, in my, all my books. And writing is a hard, hard thing, but it’s always is showing people how to do this is, is my brand. I travel in real examples, not made up examples.

Dr. Bob: (16:13)
And so make the case with research and then show people what this looks like. Don’t just tell them to do stuff, but show them. Here’s what people do that… And you can learn from all these stories. And you can pass or pick, what works for you. What you’re willing to do, what you’re willing to try. And so it puts you in the driver’s seat. And that’s part of a… I’m not sure if that was intentional, but people pointed out to me that changed the equation. So I have the person, I’m not telling them what to do. I’m saying, look at this, here’s what I found. And here’s what looks like in different organizations. Could you do this? I bet you could.

Dr. Pelè: (16:57)
As president of Bob Nelson Consulting, you’ve worked with what, 80% of the Fortune 500, you are at the top of the game. But can we maybe take a moment for you to talk about how exactly you help to bring the change that is required in organizations? When we talk about culture shifts and employee engagement shifts, do you have a methodology, a five step plan, a 12 step plan maybe, that you’ve baked into your work that you can share with us?

Dr. Bob: (17:28)
It’s usually a religious thing. Honestly, but yeah, there definitely are some key steps. I feel strongly about starting with data. So usually a company, they always feel that they know the answer before they start. And they say, well we, so they are trying to find out what is important to employees. Initially, when I talk to someone in the company, they’ll say, “Well, we already know what that is.” Oh, okay. Lay it on me? And it’s like, they want money, they want benefits, they want promotions. Oh really? That’s what they said? Oh great. No, that’s not what they said. You’re assuming that’s what they want because that’s what you’re spending all your budget on. I see, okay. Well then why don’t we just confirm that, let me do a focus group or two and let me just confirm that. And because I’ve never had that come up. And sure enough, we do a focus group and the employees are saying, I just wish someone would notice me?

Dr. Pelè: (18:35)

Dr. Bob: (18:37)
And here you have a young employee, that’s almost in tears. I work hard. I make my deadlines. I’ll work through the weekend. I just wish somebody would say something. It’s like, okay, this is well. If you’re interested here’s what your employees are saying.

Dr. Pelè: (18:52)
Yeah. Here’s the truth right here. Yeah.

Dr. Bob: (18:54)
Yeah. And then sometimes they go, “Wow, we had no idea. It’s not what we need, but if that’s what they need, then yeah. Let’s dig some more, what else? What does that look like?” And then we’ll go down that path and find out. It’s very exciting because then you get something going and the, you start to tip away at having people feel valued for the job they’re doing in the company they’re doing it. That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by design. And so, it’s got to start with leadership. Each leader recognizing this is important, even critical. So you get, the journey starts between their ears of saying, this is, and you might have heard this before but we’re going to talk about in a different way.

Dr. Bob: (19:50)
This is critical for today’s employees, for your employees, for your organization’s employees. And here’s the evidence. And there’s overwhelming evidence, for productivity, for retention. If you truly set up a culture of recognition, your employees will be seven times more likely to stay with the organization for their career. Seven times more likely. Now, you take that to a vertical like healthcare which currently is short a million nurses across the country, that’s a pretty powerful statistic. You mean, if you start doing some of the things? Yes, exactly.

Dr. Bob: (20:29)
And, I can give you the examples and, first long story starts on the first step. It’s not going to happen overnight. But lets start with stopping yelling at people start. Lets start with, stop doing the things that are creating more harm. I remember I worked in a hospital. I guess I won’t say the name because, but they, and they heard me speak and they say, “God, we love what you’re saying. We love to do more praise and public praise and different forms of recognition that again, don’t cost money, that are powerful. But they said, we’d be happy, we’d settle for having less public criticism, as a first step. Because it’s very open work environment and people would be critical of others in front of patients often.

Dr. Bob: (21:23)
And the doctors that had all the power would do be the worst at it. And so I said, well, and I’m just listening I said, “Well, do you have means of talking about things in your organization that are really important? When something’s really important what do you do? “Oh, I’ll give you examples and we have a, we use codes over the Intercom system. So if you’re ever in a hospital and you hear a code blue, universal. It means somebody is in, we need to meet it and help to save someone’s life. And everyone rushes there, it’s like broadly understood. And I said, “I think you need a code for public criticism.”

Dr. Pelè: (22:02)

Dr. Bob: (22:03)
You’re right. And so, they started doing, what was it? Was a code rose, station seven. If someone’s being publicly criticized and, they would go to that station, and they’d all stare at the perpetrator who often was a doctor, and they’ll be staring him and he’d say, “I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” “Yes you are sir.” And they’d send him a message. Now they… Free country, you could stare at anybody, right?

Dr. Pelè: (22:32)
It’s been exposed. It’s been done in a positive way that everyone agreed with, and the learning is there now.

Dr. Bob: (22:39)
We’re watching. We’re watching.

Dr. Pelè: (22:40)
And we’re all doing it together. Not just-

Dr. Bob: (22:43)
And hopefully, if we did it well, then I said, no okay. Now wouldn’t that person, in this case a doctor then does do the positive thing. Very unnatural for them to say, “Hey, I just wanted to say you did a good job at that.” And no matter what it is, then you got to catch up doing that right. You got to be quick to say, “Wow, thank you so much. You really have changed and the employee is ecstatic and they were telling everybody. Really? Yes, really. You want to keep it going. So you climb the pump and now you’re… You got to feed the-

Dr. Pelè: (23:19)
Actually, it actually works. It actually absolutely works. I want to ask you a question, very fundamental question, because I know that you’ve been doing quite a bit of research lately. That, and you’ve even seen some preliminary indications that point very clearly in a certain direction. But I want to get into that by asking you a very simple question. What is it that makes employees proud of their work and proud of the company they work for? What exactly is it?

Dr. Bob: (23:47)
Well, that’s actually part of the research I’ve been doing of late. And it’s very exciting. It’s still coming to the head, so we’re still digging around the findings. But the preliminary is very exciting. We found that the two aspects of personal pride, it really is a bit self-contained. So, if you have personal pride in the work you do, that could be whether you’re working in the office or working remotely, you have that. And usually one of the big indicators that it helps give people pride is recognition. They’ve been called out for something they’ve done well, that makes them proud of the job they did, and more likely to do more of it. And, it’s a broader set of variables that impact company pride, if you will.

Dr. Bob: (24:43)
That more falls on the culture, which again has, you can impact. Culture, a lot of times we think of in big, it’s a kind of big fuzzy thing. And it used to be. When I studied culture there was usually common knowledge that, well, it’ll take seven or eight years to change a culture. Oh, okay. Well, I’ve learned it doesn’t have to take that long. If you get everyone pointing in the same direction, it can happen very quickly. Three to six months even. And I’ve worked with organizations where it’s happened that fast. Where you get upper management to see the need on having an impact on variables that will give people a sense of belonging, and pride in the mission and vision of the organization.

Dr. Bob: (25:34)
And so, it’s not an endless list. It’s really, a spattering of things. You do those things and you do them well. So recognition is one, but also asking people for their opinions and ideas, gives them a sense of ownership. It’s involving them in decisions, especially those that affect them and the job they’re doing. Even if you say, “I’m the manager, so I got to make the final decision.” I know it’ll be a better decision if I have your input because you’re closer to the job. So, it’s showing and trust and respect. It will be a better decision, and you’ll implement it faster if everyone’s on board. And so, it’s really kind of a short list that you can embed those things into your culture. And so it is kind of fun. It’s kind of exciting that you can make a fundamental change in something as large as a culture of an organization, if you press the right buttons.

Dr. Pelè: (26:35)
If you press it. And I think what’s really powerful here is that you can do it. So many people find this topic, as you said, just out there, theoretical, conceptual culture, people’s beliefs and practices. We can change that, really? And I think what I’m hearing from you is that these buttons are, things as simple as, work on engagement, work on recognition, and then the culture and things like that, all come into play and it can have happen faster than normal. This is exciting stuff. Dr. Bob, let me ask you, if people want to get a hold of you to learn more about your books, your work, your point of view, and maybe even how to implement these cultures, what’s the best way to get a hold of you?

Dr. Bob: (27:18)
Well sure. My website’s, My books are available at discount prices, cheaper than Amazon on my website, but also are available wherever books are sold. So, all the books tell a piece of the story that we’re talking about. And so…

Dr. Pelè: (27:48)
Well, I can tell you that on this particular podcast, that anybody who wants to learn more about how to create a culture that is work proud, that involves higher engagement, higher recognition, just a culture that is positive towards better productivity, get in touch with Dr. Bob and his upcoming research. And this whole idea of work product I think is going to be something that’ll be useful.

Dr. Bob: (28:17)
Let me just make one other if I may, one other comment. And that’s inevitably, when a company wants to change it’s culture and improve its culture, they have to realize that what they’re doing in recognition, handing out some Starbucks passes or Starbucks coupons or gift cards or some random stuff, or holiday party, they got to up the ante. And do something that’s more extensive. That gets to everybody and every level. And at that point, you really need to look at a software platform. And the one that you’ve referenced, we’re proud is kind of the one that I’ve seen as being the one of the best out there for a lot of different reasons, but they can do it better than anyone. And if you work with them to answer those questions on… Again, it starts with what do our people most value when it comes to recognition, and then honestly listen to the answer. They can help you make any of those elements happen.

Dr. Pelè: (29:22)
Yeah. Well, I can tell you, it’s been my personal pleasure and honor to be talking to the recognition expert. Dr. Bob, thank you so much for being a guest on this podcast. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Bob: (29:36)
Dr. Pele, thank you for having me.

Dr. Pelè: (29:38)
Awesome. We’ll talk soon.

Dr. Bob Nelson

Dr. Bob Nelson is the world’s leading authority on employee recognition, motivation and engagement. He is President of Nelson Motivation Inc., a management training and consulting company specializing in helping organizations improve management practices, programs and systems.


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