Leadership Skills

Workers want actions, not words

Team members seek personal investment, not just a pat on the back, Tom Moriarty writes.

By Tom Moriarty

What do you think workers value most on the job? Autonomy? Respect from co-workers? The Plant Services Leadership Survey asked participants about the importance of these and other job-satisfaction elements, and it revealed some interesting responses.

We’ll focus here on responses from team members as opposed to responses from supervisors, managers, or senior managers. Not that we don’t care about these other groups, but the midlevel managers and supervisors to whom I tend to target this column have the greatest influence on the workforce. It’s estimated that 70% of workforce members’ performance is directly attributable to their supervisor.

As leaders, we should do our best to put our team members in a position to perform at their best. That is usually accomplished when we take care of the things that are important to them while accomplishing all of the organization’s objectives.

So what did workers rank as most important and least important when it comes to job satisfaction? The three lowest-scoring items were receiving praise from your supervisor, having opportunities for promotion or better job, and the friendliness of people in the workplace. I was somewhat surprised that the element ranked least important was receiving praise from the supervisor. Most texts on leadership emphasize that providing overt recognition is very important. I talk about this in my Productive Leadership courses. The question may be whether we have been providing the right kind of recognition. More on this follows.

The element ranked second-lowest in importance was chances for promotion or for getting a better job. This may come as a surprise to some people in leadership positions, but a lot of people don’t want to be supervisors or managers. Human beings tend to project how they think and what they believe on others, as though the way we think and feel is common to everyone else. It’s important for people in management and supervisory positions to understand that craftspeople are proud of their occupation and many are not interested in joining the “suits.” Respect the fact that craftspeople are experts in their area. Many will not be motivated by the promise of a promotion or getting a different position.

The next least-important item had to do with the friendliness of co-workers. Most workplace culture experts emphasize the importance of having good interpersonal relationships and a friendly work environment. The team-member respondents did not find that to be of high importance. Nobody wants to work in a hostile environment, but the respondents give the impression that a professional workplace culture is just fine. 

The three most-important elements for team members were the chance to accomplish something worthwhile, the chance to learn new things, and the opportunity to develop new skills and abilities. When comparing the most- and least-important items, I believe there is an important lesson for supervisors and managers to glean. Team members indicated that getting praise from their supervisor wasn’t all that important. The data is telling us that praise in the form of verbal appreciation is less important than a demonstration of confidence in the person through empowerment and investment in their professional development. They want actions, not words.

More than receiving a verbal thank-you, a certificate of recognition, or a pat on the back, team members want to be trusted and to work for supervisors who have faith in them. A supervisor or manager can demonstrate trust and faith by assigning important tasks, providing opportunities for team members to learn new things, and providing training and experiences that increase direct reports’ skills and abilities. 

One caution: Don’t apply this information blindly. Willingness doesn’t necessarily equate with readiness. Individuals may show a desire to be assigned responsibility for new and worthwhile tasks, to learn new things, and to improve their skills and abilities, but make sure you know their readiness level before you turn them loose. You must understand each team member’s knowledge and skill level so you don’t make the mistake of thinking someone is ready to fly solo when he or she still may need some coaching or other support.