Small Business

More Important Than the Holiday Party


To keep people's morale up, send handwritten thank-you notes, praise people, and make things fun

The number of companies holding holiday parties is at 20-year low, according to a recent survey from executive-search firm Battalia Winston. But whether you're simply canceling a party, holding a potluck instead, or moving forward with your company's tradition, it's the unexpected gestures that will help you retain and motivate your staff over the long run. Consider these three suggestions you can use in your own business.

Don't forget the old-fashioned touch. Voicemail, text messages, and e-mail just don't have the same impact as a handwritten note. Over the past few weeks, I've been asking small business owners for their favorite morale booster. The old fashioned thank-you note seems to have had the most lasting impact among those people who have received one. Adam Slutsky is the CEO of Mimeo.com, an online printing company with some highly demanding clients. He makes it a point to send handwritten notes to each member of his team after successful initiatives.

Handwritten notes are also important displays of appreciation for clients, especially for those who have cut back their spending. Presentation design specialist Nancy Duarte, of Duarte Design in Mountain View, Calif., recently told me that during the last downturn, she created a small brochure about her services, placed a handwritten card in each one, and mailed to them to about 1,000 clients. "It's so rare to get a real note in the mail today that clients hung onto them and even e-mailed to thank us. Two years after we mailed it, I received a call from a client who said: 'I've hung on to this for two years waiting to land a job where I could work with you again.'" Duarte's notes came across as a sincere gesture of appreciation. They yielded surprising results when the economy recovered.

Praise frequently, effectively, and publicly. Successful business owners and managers praise people daily, not just at the toast during the company party. Dan Dugan is a human resources manager for a publicly traded company. A full seven years after he worked for one particular boss, he still remembers the woman for her ability to show appreciation. Dugan remembers the day his former boss praised him, saying: "When you deliver training and people tell me it was a great class, I feel very proud about having you on the team, because you're making a positive impact for the company." Dugan said that one specific compliment meant more to him than any gift card. The structure his boss used is worth borrowing: When you_________, I feel___________, because__________.

Dugan's boss praised him privately. But public praise is also important to maintain morale. People enjoy being praised in front of their peers. Take every opportunity via staff meetings, e-mail correspondence, or daily interactions with your staff to single out one person for his or her contributions—and do it publicly.

Don't forget to have fun. "I never thought anything would top September 11, but this has been the most challenging year in our 13-year history," Dian Griesel, recently told me. Griesel is the founder of the Investor Relations Group in New York, which handles financial communications for smaller publicly traded companies. Griesel didn't cancel the holiday party for her 35 employees, but she finds ways to keep up morale all year long. For example, her staff is accustomed to hearing the sounds of a very large, and loud, rock-n-roll style gong, part of an almost decade-old ritual. When someone lands an opportunity for a client (such as an analyst meeting), the person bangs the gong. The noise is met by cheers and laughs around the floor. While some might say it's cheesy, Griesel says it's the fun, silly things that help spirits stay high. "I used to wonder if this stuff matters because, I, personally, am self-directed," Griesel told me. "That thinking was a mistake. Everyone likes to hear 'thank you,' and our gong is a fun way to say it."

Make no mistake. Your most productive employees want to be recognized for their work, over and above the gesture of a holiday party, which is largely expected. The unexpected gestures will be long remembered, well after the holiday party is over.

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach for the world's leading brands. He is a speaker and author of the new book "Fire Them Up"

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