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Big Results with a Small Gesture

Sometimes only a small gesture of appreciation can generate lasting benefits.

The study session with the city council seemed to last forever. I had prepared a report on a policy issue involving one of the utilities owned and operated by the city, and the city council had a lot of questions for me after I’d delivered my presentation. They weren’t particularly hostile - just detailed and thorough, as they should be. As the author of the report and its recommendations, I was on center stage for two or three hours responding to questions from the elected officials as they considered their options.

As is often the case with public policy issues, the matter wasn’t resolved that night, which can be hard to accept sometimes, especially when you’ve put a lot into the preparation of a major recommendation.

The next day, one of the councilmembers stopped by my office while I was out for a few moments. Since I was out, he tore the corner from a piece of paper and left me a note, which read:

“You did a great job last night.”

I saved that little note for a long time. I’ve forgotten the details of the issue now, but the small gesture by that councilmember has stayed with me. Countless times since then I’ve used this anecdote in mentoring and coaching staff members in how to motivate and reward their employees. Empirical research has repeatedly shown that monetary rewards are not the most effective means of motivation. I can surely attest to that.

Managers need to remember to use precisely this kind of appreciation for the employees they direct. With monetary resources scarce (and less effective anyway), extending a simple “Good job!” to let a person know they and their work are valued is now more important than ever. I assure you, they will remember it.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Lynn Nordby

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.