Melissa Graebner, an associate professor of management at the University of Texas, shares her advice for employee appreciation and strong leadership in the workplace.
By Saba Ghaffari, Photo courtesy of the McCombs School of Business
Employee appreciation has been a hot-button topic in the workplace for years. Yet thousands of employees throughout the country feel a lack of recognition and value at their jobs every day. Austin Woman sat down with Melissa Graebner, an associate professor of management at the University of Texas, to discuss her tips for how employers can boost morale, show their appreciation and reduce turnover rates.
Austin Woman: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s led you to where you are today?
Melissa Graebner: I’ve been on the faculty at UT since 2003. Before I joined UT, I got my MBA and Ph.D. at Stanford University [in management science and engineering, with a specialization in organizational strategy], and worked in management consulting for five years in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Before all of that, I grew up in Madison, Wis.
AW: What are the best tactics for boosting morale and reducing turnover in the workplace?
MG: Honestly, the best thing is for managers to listen, all the way up and down the org chart, listening and showing respect for employees’ viewpoints. It’s hard to find the time but it’s really important. And it doesn’t count as listening if the leader nods his or her head and then does nothing or shunts the employee over to HR or to a lower level manager. Those things just end up eroding morale. It also doesn’t count as listening if the leader gets defensive and starts yelling. A great example is Travis Kalanick from Uber. There was the viral video when an Uber driver complained to him about some changes to the pricing structure. Kalanick started out listening but then he quickly got really angry and started blaming the employee. [That’s] not good for morale!
AW: Do incentives always have to be monetary in nature? If an employer is unable to provide financial incentives such as bonuses, what do you suggest as an alternative to keeping employees motivated?
MG: Money isn’t the only thing, but it is important, particularly in a city like Austin that has a rising cost of living. If employees’ compensation doesn’t go up over time, they are effectively downwardly mobile because their housing and other costs keep going up. In addition to that, money is a metric that people use to measure themselves, so it has psychological benefits as well as financial. All that being said, people respond well to transparency. If the company is really unable to offer raises or bonuses, open the books and show people the situation. Don’t make vague statements or place the blame on someone else. If employees feel they are appreciated and are getting the full story, they will be more patient on the compensation front.
AW: What is the No. 1 management mistake you see employers make in the workplace?
MG: Not valuing trust. Trust is hard to build and easy to destroy. Say what you mean and do what you say.
AW: How important is recognition when it comes to employee appreciation?
MG: Recognition is great, but like most things, the devil is in the details. Lots of times, organizations make the mistake of recognizing only a small number of people and ignoring the majority who are doing the hard work behind the scenes. That just creates perceptions of favoritism. People contribute in a variety of ways, some more obvious than others. Recognition needs to be flexible enough to accommodate that range of contributions.
AW: What is the best advice you have for people in leadership roles?
MG: The best leadership advice I ever heard was when I was a camp counselor in my college years. We were told that even though we would have hundreds of interactions with different kids, for each of those kids, that may be the only interaction they have with a counselor all day. They looked up to us. So, if we were dismissive or unkind in any of those interactions, it might be easy for us to forget, but that kid would remember. I’ve tried to think about that at every stage in my own career, and I think it’s great advice for leaders of all kinds. Morale is built by a series of interactions with individuals.
AW: What is one thing that you think is different in 2018 when it comes to management, compared with 20-plus years ago?
MG: At some level, not enough has changed. There are problems that have been allowed to fester for way too long. For example, representation of women and minorities in senior management has been really slow to change. But there is positive news too. We are having more conversations about things like implicit racial and gender bias and how power dynamics take away subordinates’ ability to consent. We’re starting to think about transgender and gender nonbinary folks in the workplace, which wasn’t something that organizations really paid any attention to 20 years ago. There is more discussion of how to support employees who are dealing with mental or physical illnesses. But organizations have a lot of inertia, and they have a tendency to circle the wagons rather than really take in feedback and attempt change. So, there is still a lot of hard work that needs to be done.