The Importance of Feeling Important

You don’t get ahead by fighting your way to the top – you get ahead by helping others get there. In this column, William A. Cohen looks at the power of giving your employees what they really want: recognition and respect.

To Peter Drucker, management was more than a job, even more than a profession. It was a calling. From him I learned something that I have tried to express in all of my books, speeches, and articles:

You don’t get ahead by fighting your way to the top – you get ahead by helping others to the top.

You don’t succeed by trying to get the most work out of your employees – you succeed by giving the most help to your employees.

The key here isn’t that you should not strive for efficiency in what you or others do, or that you aren’t responsible for performance in your area of work. Rather it is that leading others is not like a switch that you turn on and forget. Instead, leading others consists of always respecting and helping those you lead and work with, not driving them while you focus on competing with others for your own success.

How to Render Help

Max DePree, former chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, Inc. the furniture maker that Fortune Magazine once named one of the ten "best managed" and "most innovative" companies In America wrote: "The best people working for organizations are like volunteers. Since they could probably find good jobs in any number of groups, they choose to work somewhere for reasons less tangible than salary or position. Drucker taught the same thing. In the modern world where employees have mobility, even in a recession, all employees should be treated as if they were volunteers and can go somewhere else, because they can. And volunteer treatment is a strong form of giving employees the most help.

Treating People with Respect Gains Respect

Isn't it within your power to treat people with respect and ensure that others in your organization do the same? Certainly every human being deserves to be treated with respect. Many outstanding leaders maintain you should treat those that work for you with more than respect. Mary Kay Ash, the woman who build a billion dollar corporation, Mary Kay Cosmetics, recommended that you should imagine everyone you meet every day is wearing a large sign that says: "MAKE ME FEEL IMPORTANT."

James MacGregor Burns, an American political scientist, wrote an outstanding, scholarly, book called simply, Leadership (Harper & Row, publishers, 1978). In fact, the book was so outstanding that it won the Pulitzer Prize. Listen to his succinct advice, for Drucker himself could not have put it much better: "In real life, the most practical advice for leaders is not to treat pawns like pawns, nor princes like princes, but all persons like persons." Peter followed this advice. He treated virtually everyone with respect. I suspect that not only CEOs, but heads of state were treated exactly the way he treated his students.

Recognition for Good Work Is Desired and Deserved

Everyone wants recognition. Connie Podesta and Jean Gatz, two management consultants, wrote a book, How To Be The Person Successful Companies Fight to Keep (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997). In it, they reported that one CEO confided his frustration and distress: "I have worked so hard to turn this company around. I have managed to keep our profits up without laying off one person. I provide excellent benefits, and I’m willing to pay for my employees to go to school. I spend a great deal of money on picnics, parties, and celebrations because I want them to enjoy their jobs and feel as though this is a family they can count on. Very few of them have ever said thank you or even seem to appreciate how hard I try to make this a great place to work. On the other hand, if one little thing goes wrong or I have to say no to any of their ideas, some of them threaten to quit. And others won’t speak to me."

You may feel that this is the nature of workers and that this CEO must learn to be more thick-skinned. Perhaps. But my point is that here is an important manager, a CEO who has made it to the top of his company. He’s has power and responsibility and is probably making a good salary. Yet even he craves recognition for what he does for his workers. If this is true of a powerful person like this, think how true it must be for everyone else . . . including you and I and those who you may wish to motivate.

Yet, there are so many ways to recognize your employees. Management expert Dr. Bob Nelson, once Peter’s student, actually identified over a thousand! He published them in a book entitled 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (New York: Workman Press, 1994).

Workers Need to Develop Their Skills

Do you create the opportunity for those in your organization to develop their skills? Can you provide special courses in-house? How about a few hours off every week to complete a college degree? Maybe you can hire a physical fitness instructor to work with employees during lunch or after work. Sometimes an employee has the ability to do this, or has unique knowledge about which he or she is willing to instruct other employees. All you need to do is ask. Don’t forget that you and other managers or workers in your organization can act as teachers if any have expertise in special areas. Of course those who teach also learn.

Let Your Workers Think For Themselves

Are you open to letting your people think for themselves? Drucker said that you could tell people what to do. However, he also taught us that managers that motivate know that they must allow their workers to decide how to do most parts of their jobs for themselves. Peter didn’t mean that you shouldn't give help if asked. However, he did mean that we need to recognize that people have their own abilities, experiences, and unique backgrounds. That's why they're assigned to the duties that they're assigned. That's why they're such valuable commodities. They have a lot to contribute. It’s wasteful to do all of the thinking for everyone in your organization. Try it and sooner or later you are certain to run into difficulties. Even if you could do all of the thinking for all of your workers, you would be ill-advised to do so. If all of your people thought exactly like you, your organization would have a pretty limited source of ideas. In addition, researchers have discovered that there is a synergy created such that the product of many separate brains working together is far greater than the sum of each considered separately. If you try to do all the thinking in your organization yourself, you lose this important synergism. Let your workers do their own thinking, and you'll be amazed and surprised at what they come up with and how they use their expertise to solve your problems.

A business scientist by the name of Frederick Herzberg built on Maslow's work. Herzberg collected data on job attitude among employees in hundreds of companies. From studying this data, he concluded that workers have two completely different categories of needs which affect satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a job.

According to Herzberg, real motivators are satisfying factors that relate to the job itself. They involve feelings of achievement, recognition for accomplishment, challenging work, increased responsibility, growth and development. These are the factors that produce job satisfaction as contrasted with the other category, hygiene needs, which only prevent job dissatisfaction.

Herzberg’s work is important to us because it means that if we reduce the hygiene factors, we're going to get job dissatisfaction. How would you feel if someone reduced your salary? So to avoid job dissatisfaction, we maintain the hygiene factors at their present levels. Of course there are exceptions to this rule. Most workers will accept reduction for the good of the organization if everyone salary is reduced proportionately on a fair basis.

However, if we want those we lead to be more satisfied with their jobs, we must use the real motivators, not only salary. That is, we must look for ways that we can increase:

  • feelings of achievement
  • recognition
  • challenge in the work
  • responsibility
  • growth and development

What Does It Cost to Give Workers What They Really Want?

None of these will cost you very much to implement compared with pay, benefits, or providing perfect job security. Also, these are factors which you can improve regardless of restrictions or limitations on salary or benefits placed by your parent organization. This is good news if you have limited resources and want to motivate and help your workers to higher performance. Most of these factors considered important by workers can probably be improved by you today, and they will probably cost very little. And while you are helping others, you will succeed in business at the same time. That’s the Peter Drucker way to success, and it will be a win-win for you and they, and a win for your organization.

Authors Note: This column was adapted from A Class with Drucker (AMACOM, 2008).