Tools For Motivating Employees. The Power of Handwritten Notes and Cards.

employee recognition header

Summary: This post contains not only an article about the engagement value of handwritten notes in employee recognition, but also a video interview with Chester Elton, author of “The Carrot Principle,” expanding on the subject.  In addition, there are links to sources of message samples and there are two pdf sets of printable note templates you can use to make your own clip-on notes or sticky notes.

Time after time, research shows employees value recognition above money.

There is only so much reward value to money.  Sure, people want to be fairly compensated.  But they’d rather have less money and an appreciative boss.

In fact, many people take jobs or stay with jobs with companies that don’t pay as well as the average, if the bosses and co-workers are friendly, caring, understanding and appreciative.

There are two kinds of employees you need to recognize.

As you might expect, people want recognition for various levels of above-average work — from “this is a particularly good job” through “this is outstanding” to “Wow! I think you just saved the company!”  You can easily see and desire to reward particularly good performance.

But there are plenty of good, steady workers who deliver the work you hired them for.  Their work is consistent and reliable.  It is of the good quality you expect of workers at their levels. It is the work that you need to make the organization operate smoothly.  And they show up on time, work the full day and do what is expected of them.

Usually, you can’t think of any one action or project that is deserving of particular praise.  They don’t do anything especially outstanding.  It’s just that having employees like these is outstanding in and of itself.

Those employees want and deserve recognition as much as the so-called “star performers.”  They are “stars” in their own way.

You need both types of performers.  The first type help your business grow.  The second type make it run.  In fact, most of your best employees have both types of characteristics — they are steady and reliable, yet they also are able to go above and beyond.

So, how do you recognize both kinds of good employee performance and productivity.  And how do you do it so that it is genuine and reflects the value of the performance?

A great way is to send handwritten notes.  Notes that  tell the employee specifically what contribution he or she made.

Most verbal praise lasts as long as the paper it’s not printed on.  Not to mention that few people know how to express themselves fully but succinctly when they are face to face.

A handwritten note may be the highest form of personal recognition.  It implies that you took the time to think about the employee and write it yourself.  You didn’t have your secretary or assistant type and email a standard “good work” message.  It is an original, one-off, completely individual acknowledgement.

Because it is unique to that employee, the employee usually keeps it.  Values it.  Because the employee feels valued.  Noticed.  Appreciated.

You can’t buy the goodwill that comes with that kind of feeling.  It feeds the employee’s self-esteem.  Money and gifts can’t do that.  Personal attention can.

It doesn’t take a long letter.  Something the size of a sticky note can work very well for the more frequent and casual messages.  Sticky notes actually are perfect for sending a quick “thank you” or “good job” right on the documents or objects that you are praising.  Or, if you primarily exchange documents by email, you can print out a document you want to comment on and stick a note to it.  It’s easy to do this so you can do it fairly frequently.

For both kinds of performance I mentioned earlier, you can merely write a few words that say specifically what you appreciated about the employee’s work and sign it.  As a base for your handwritten note, you can use pre-printed note paper, cards and sticky notes that call special attention to your message. (People love them.)

You can also download sample messages to help you compose your own.  Just be sure to point out something in particular about the work of the employee you’re writing to.  Keep in mind that it is a personal message.

Here are some sites where you can copy or download sample messages.

  1. (this site also has printed note paper and cards you can use to write your message on.)

In addition, I’ve made some sticky note style print-ables you can use to write your notes on.  You can download them here:  It is a tw0-page pdf.  You can use one set of four notes for praising special achievements and the other for messages that recognize the value of continuous, everyday good work.


In this video, Chester Elton, author of The Carrot Principle talks about the power of specific recognition and the handwritten note

Increasing Productivity During the Holiday Season: Productivity Lottery for Christmas

Female Santa running with a gift sack

Female Santa running with a gift sackAlmost everyone is aware that during December — especially as Christmas grows nearer — most workplaces report more employee absences, more mistakes, and lower productivity.  It’s certainly predictable that people are going to be distracted, rushed, concerned about money and over-committed in social obligations at this time of year.

When I was working for a small organization — many years ago — the management had a unique way of increasing both attendance and productivity during the holiday season.

Unlike many organizations, not only did they not experience a “seasonal” decrease in employee attendance, performance and/or productivity, they actually got a slight boost, and they did it with one tradition they used every year.

They called the tradition “The Twelve Days of Christmas Lottery.”

For the twelve days before Christmas, there was a lottery every day.  Everyone put a card with his/her name on it into a cardboard box with a slot in the top.  Each day someone from management would reach in and pull out a card to identify that day’s winner.  No one wanted to miss the lottery, because you had to be there to win.  And once a name was pulled out, the card didn’t go back in, so you couldn’t win on another day.  And, obviously, you could only win once.

The winner of the lottery received three valuable things.

First, he got a substantial gift certificate to a local department store.

Second, his bio and achievements and anything else he wanted to include about himself were published in a daily Christmas Newsletter.  The newsletter was well-read because it contained seasonal tips, recommendations for shopping, and discounts the business had negotiated for its employees with other local businesses.  This meant, as you may imagine, that folks in other departments would know more about him, his skills and his achievements when opportunities for promotions and transfers to more desirable jobs came up.

Third, and to many the most important, the winner got a “1 Merit Point” he could use to boost his rating in the upcoming January performance review.  He could also use it as “extra credit” if he was a candidate for a promotion.

You see why everyone wanted to be there for the lottery?

Can you see a way to adapt this productivity tool for your organization?  Would it need to be scaled up or down?  Could you use something like Amazon gift cards instead of local ones? What could you add, subtract or modify?

Zombie Employees — An Age-Old Problem

They’re everywhere.  Zombie employees. You see their listless, soul-less, “the-porch-lights-are-on-but-nobody’s-home” behavior.  They do only what they’re told to do and then do nothing until instructed what to do next. They’re bored. They’re resentful of requests to do anything new or different.  If they don’t know something, they don’t try to find out.  If they do know something, they don’t share it. I could go on, but you know them.  You’ve been a customer who’s had to deal with them.  You’ve been a manager who’s had to try to get work out of them.  You’ve been a co-worker whose projects are held up by them.

There are many theories about what causes employee attitude and behavior like this.  Some assign blame to the lack of engagement.  Or to lack of training.  Or to lack of motivation.  The possibilities seem endless.

Bill Jerome’s “Learn To Keep Your Company Free Of Zombie Employees” — — covers the subject from the point of view of employers. Jerome offers a 5-question “zombie test” that assesses how corporate organization, management and culture might encourage or discourage zombie behavior in a company.

In “The Manager’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Employee Apocalypse” – — Merry Richter talks about the possible effects of the current recession and the traumas of unemployment, underemployment and overwork in the aftermath of radical downsizings.

Jeff Hunter speaks directly to employees who have been “zombiefied” by lousy or dead-end jobs in “Are You a Zombie Employee & Job Seeker?” — — He suggests that choosing a better job, career or employer might be the answer for the individual.

All of these writers have good points.  For decades, management consultants have been trying to help companies figure out how to transform unproductive, unmotivated employees.  Many techniques have been developed.  They’ve often worked.  But no one’s ever found any real generally-applicable solutions.  Solutions that can be repeated in most organizations and situations.  Managers, co-workers and the affected employees themselves have to try various solutions to see what works.  A good deal of the time, nothing does work.

And, it’s been going on from time out of mind.  Whatever the status of the worker — employee, serf, servant, slave, monk, nun, bondsman, apprentice — and whatever the status of the boss — master, nobleman, landlord, employer, abbot, mother superior, master craftsman — the one in charge has often complained of the laziness and stupidity of the worker, and the worker has often complained of the unreasonableness or downright evil of the boss.

Even in domestic service there have long been books like “The Servant Problem : An Attempt At Its Solution” by “Experienced Mistress” (1899) — — that tell the tales of woe in managing household workers.

There have always been plenty of worker “zombies” who want to have jobs and be paid, need to have jobs to survive, but don’t want to work.  Don’t like to work. Never intend to do more than they absolutely must.  Workers who will never improve, regardless of training, motivational programs, coaching, rewards or punishment.

The sad truth is that you have to be able to know well and assess each (yes, each) individual to see why he or she has gone “zombie.”  Or if he has always been a zombie worker.  You will have to decide how much work it will take to make him productive.  Figure out if he can be made productive at all or if he will always be a zombie worker.

That means you’ll have to actually talk with him about it.  Listen to what he has to say.  Talk with others who work with him.  Find out if he has a reason for his behavior and attitude, or if he’s just one of the kind who never wanted to actually work.  Find out if you can accommodate his particular needs and still get the time and money value back that you need for your efforts.  See if you think he’s worth it.  If he is, great.  It’s usually better for the organization and everyone involved if you can transform the relationship to a productive one.

But remember, much of the time it just isn’t worth the effort unless you know for sure at least half of the problem is with the organization and not the employee.  Much of the time it’s just better to replace the employee.  You’re not a social worker.  You’re a business owner or manager who needs to get the work done and make money for the business.