Recently, I called customer service for a company I do business with. Sandra Brown answered and immediately she was friendly and willing to help with my problem. She took care of business and I was happy. I told her it was a pleasure to deal with someone so friendly and helpful. She sounded somewhat surprised and said I had made her day. I then asked to talk to her supervisor. When I told the supervisor I wanted to talk to her about Sandra Brown, she answered with some trepidation. My message to her was that she should value Sandra as an employee and that her demeanor and the way she handled my situation reflected positively on the company. The supervisor was also surprised and thankful. I asked her to put something in Sandra’s personnel file and she agreed. Two weeks later I received a “thank you” card from Sandra, in which she promised to continue trying to do a good job

Simple yet significant

I have made a practice of recognizing people in this manner for years; especially since we began our business of cultural/behavioral approaches to safety. Through my experience and extensive research, I have found that the impact of a simple “thank-you” is significant in relation to employee performance.

It is extremely easy to make a complaint. We get very emotional when we feel we have not been treated well, or we feel someone is not performing their job. We are quick to express our dissatisfaction. But, rarely, do we take the time to say, “Job well done, thank you!” It seems like such a simple thing to do, yet we take it for granted that a person should be doing their job and no recognition need be given. When talking to a number of supervisors or managers, I hear that they don’t see the point. It is their opinion that, when someone is hired, they are expected to do their job and shouldn’t need to be recognized for it. Usually, they add that no one ever did it for them.

Positive reinforcement

At the beginning of any cultural/behavioral project we do for a facility, we conduct a “Now” Safety Culture Study. Part of the study measures trust and recognition. A high percentage of respondents rank trust at a very low level. One of the questions asked is “Do you, personally, receive positive reinforcement when you perform your job safely?” To date, 78 percent have replied “no” or “rarely.” When asked what kind of recognition they prefer, many respond that a “thank you” would be nice.

 When we train in cultural/behavioral safety, we share the following scenarios to demonstrate the power of positive reinforcement:

At a particular plant, the plant manager has been given a dictate from above that each line will produce a certain number of units per shift. One line has not been reaching this level. On Monday, the plant manager calls the people in and, after screaming at them, tells them if they are not at the level of X units by the end of their shift on Friday, they are in serious trouble. Do you think they reach that level the next day? How about Wednesday? How about Friday? In most cases, they will not produce the level required until the Friday deadline given them and nothing more.

At a similar facility, a plant manager is given the same edict. He also has a line producing below the level corporate has asked for. On Monday, he calls the people in and tells them how much he needs their help. He explains the situation and tells them that he knows they are good workers and they will do their best to help him with this challenge and thanks them. On Tuesday, he goes out to the line and tells the people he can see how hard they are working toward reaching the goal and thanks them again. He repeats the process as employees get closer to the number of units required. By Friday, the line is producing more than the units required.

Encouraging excellence

Although this is a story, it is a compilation of our many years of experience in witnessing what positive recognition can accomplish. Most studies show that employees will perform at an average level to keep their jobs, but will perform at a higher than expected level when they feel they are respected and valued as an employee. We believe that a rise in recognition = a rise in the level of performance in all aspects of a business. This is especially true in safety.

We are in especially trying times economically. Companies are cutting back or just withholding spending because of uncertainty. Bonuses, training and incentives are low priority. People are worried about keeping their jobs. All these factors can breed low morale and low performance. Many facilities are probably at their most vulnerable in safety. It is even more important to strengthen a safety process in bad economic times. A truly safe workplace saves a company tremendous amounts of money. Positive reinforcement infused into a safety process along with smart training and employee involvement/participation can be critical to driving safety excellence.

This is a crucial time for companies to ensure that their employees know their worth and importance to the health of the company. There are great opportunities to begin recognizing people and developing a positive environment for the entire workplace population. Creating an atmosphere of positive reinforcement rather than a strictly punitive atmosphere will do much to improve safety and production. While a disciplinary system is required for serious violations, it should not be used alone to motivate behavior. People will do more of what is positively reinforced. With companies struggling to regain stability in this difficult economic period, building trust and encouraging employees to be a part of the process will make an impact on the company’s stability. Does it really cost much to use encouragement and positive reinforcement?