Daniel’s Story: When Employee Appreciation Efforts Don’t Seem to Pay Off


Note: Daniel is a fictional character. Clients’ personal stories are always kept strictly confidential.

Our first phone call

“Hi, Audrey. I need your help. Many of my staff members seem to lack motivation so I have been going out of my way to show appreciation and try to make them want to be more engaged, but I am not seeing any improvements.”

“Hi, Daniel. Can you give me some examples of behaviors you observe that you think come from a low level of motivation?”

“It’s not the same for everyone. One or two people tend to come in late several times a week. Two employees chronically miss deadlines. Four or five don’t pay attention to details and often make mistakes. Many have a negative attitude when I tell them we are going to start a new project. And when I ask for volunteers for anything… I get crickets.”

“Can you tell me what efforts you’ve already made to improve motivation and engagement?”

“I read in an article that the majority of employees don’t feel appreciated and that hurts motivation, so I decided to start with staff appreciation efforts. I bring doughnuts and coffee to all of our staff meetings. I make a point to express appreciation for the entire team at every meeting. For our annual retreat, instead of staying on campus or going to a nearby hotel, we booked a meeting room at a hotel right on the beach. We finished early both days to allow people to relax and have some fun. I don’t know what more I can do! Our university already celebrates service anniversaries and our President’s office sends a card to everyone on their birthday.”

“Well, I can tell you that showing appreciation is much more effective when it’s done with one person at a time, highlighting something specific about that individual, than appreciation for an entire team, or individual recognition that is equally given to everyone, like birthdays and anniversaries. But before we go into details regarding what makes people feel appreciated, let’s look at the big picture. There are many important factors that impact motivation. Let’s start there.”

Motivation 101

During our first coaching session, I explained to David that when it comes to motivating employees, the first step is to communicate the “what, why, and how”. Employees need to have a full understanding of what they are expected to accomplish, why it matters, and how to do it successfully. It’s a very basic concept that most leaders have known for a long time, but they often assume that people know things that have not been clearly communicated.

Once the expectations are clear (the what), the purpose and meaning (the why) are understood, and the strategies (the how) are established, obstacles need to be removed. Consciously or not, employees consider three questions before they do something to the best of their ability: (1) “Are they capable of doing it?”, (2) “Will it work?”, and “Is it worth the effort?”

Identifying obstacles

I worked with David on a non-threatening approach to get feedback from his staff members on what might cause discouragement or low engagement. It was essential to strategize and choose very careful what words would be used to avoid making people defensive or uncooperative.

David’s team members were eager to tell him what problems they were facing because they were affecting their job satisfaction and quality of life. David discovered that those who came in felt there was no accountability and no consequences. They thought no one cared. They needed to see more leadership and be reminded of the department’s values and standards.

The two employees who missed deadlines were clearly overworked but afraid to speak up. They were doing their best and didn’t know how to ask for help without looking bad or disappointing David. They overpromised and underdelivered because they didn’t want to say no or to complain or to look incompetent. They needed help to communicate effectively with David.

The employees who made mistakes admitted being bored and disengaged. They needed new challenges and opportunities to contribute to other projects and welcomed new goals and new training.

Another important insight gained was that people were not reluctant to volunteer because they didn’t care but because they did! They had volunteered in the past and didn’t feel heard, or they thought they contributions were not used, or sometimes they felt they were wasting countless hours serving on committees that accomplished very little. They were discouraged because their efforts hadn’t paid off and they didn’t want to feel victimized again.

You see, no amounts of free doughnuts could fix these problems.

Removing obstacles

For the next few weeks, David asked me to coach him on all important aspects of transformational leadership because he realized that his team needed him to be a more effective leader. He knew that once he would change, his employees would change too.

Together, we worked on creating clear standards and expectations with built-in accountability and finding solutions to the problems he had uncovered. He made some modifications to how he delegated projects to make people’s jobs more interesting and building on people’s strengths. He also made sure that workloads were no longer too light or too heavy. Simultaneously, we worked on creating a culture of excellence and pride in quality work.

Once obstacles were removed and his team members felt confident that (1) they were capable of doing their job, (2) their efforts would be successful, and (3) it would be worth it, motivation, engagement, and performance dramatically increased. At that point, we started working on individualized employee appreciation.

How is your team performing?

If you are not fully satisfied with how well your team members are performing, before you go buy more doughnuts, please start looking at what obstacles are preventing them from doing better.

It is a sensitive subject and choosing the wrong words or using the wrong tone while asking for feedback can make your problems worse. I invite you to click here and schedule a call with me to discuss how I can facilitate this process for you. You may have one or two bad apples, but the vast majority of employees want to succeed and want to feel happy and engaged at work. Let’s work together to raise the bar, improve morale, and make your department more successful than ever.

About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, and online courses. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.