Craft Your Strategy for Winning the War for Talent

Linda Dulye's picture

From our perspective, the war for keeping talent is well under way. Companies striving to keep their greatest asset and competitive weapon – their people – must activate or fine tune recognition programs that focus first on managers and their ownership of recognition and retention practices.

Our research indicates that how an employee is recognized matters more than what is actually given. The how of recognition generally is handled by a manager – and those who execute with sincerity, preparation and clear communication create powerful experiences that can be a magnet for retention.

With the goal of keeping talent as the economy recovers, managers can make a profound difference in a company's retention success with these high-impact recognition tactics:

  • Be prepared. This means knowing how to correctly spell and pronounce names. I have one of those troublesome surnames – Dulye. The variations are endless, and annoying. The most sincere act of recognition goes south fast when names are misspelled or mispronounced. If a senior manager is publicly commending a team of employees – employees whom he or she doesn't regularly work with or know personally – advance review and practice of first and last names is essential. Botched up pronunciations mean one thing – you didn't take the time to get to know me, so how can you possibly care what I did. Insincerity kills morale and motivation fast. In addition to nailing names correctly, managers should be prepared to identify a few, specific actions completed by those being recognized and how these actions helped the business. Rule of thumb: know who made a difference and why.
  • Be timely. Employee recognition is most effective when it is given as closely as possible to the action that merits attention. Don't wait for employee evaluation time or a quarterly town hall to commend achievements – both big and small. The on-demand dynamics of the external consumer world have created a cultural impatience that carries into the workplace. Speed in follow-up is associated with responsiveness. Although managers should strive to be physically present when giving timely recognition, business travel and remote locations often pose barriers. If that's the case, a follow-up phone call or video conference should occur with timeliness.


  • Remember little things. Our firm's research in the area of employee recognition shows that little actions speak volumes. Surveyed employees were asked to identify their top recognition preference, and rising to the top of the list was a handshake or pat on the back supported by a sincerely spoken "thank you" from a manager for a job well done. Other winning tactics included receiving a personalized thank you card with a thoughtful, handwritten message of appreciation and being treated to a favorite drink or snack. Budget shouldn't be a barrier to recognize. No frills works! Real impact comes from being truly present – in time and interest – when you say "we appreciate you for a job well done."
  • Personalize praise. Not everyone wants the same kind of recognition. Some respond well to public accolades while others prefer private one-on-one conversations. The context of recognition – where and when it occurs – is often more important than the content – what it is. Factors that influence context are the setting, the time, and even the day of the week that you choose to recognize. Many times the context is designed for the convenience of the manager, without consideration of the recipient's personality or demeanor. The result can be a recognition bomb. I've seen front-line associates become overcome by nerves and discomfort while being ushered into a rug-row corner office for a formal plaque and handshake exchange with a senior executive. The award recipient couldn't savor the moment because she was in foreign surroundings and too fixated on the plush appointments of the room. Formality can be intimidating. Some of the most successful recognition events that I've seen occurred with a senior leader walking, without an entourage, into an employee's simple and stark cubicle. The act of going to the employee's work area rather than vice versa speaks volumes about respect. It also creates a workplace story that is likely to get frequent air-time.
  • Give airtime. Our research shows that leaders who actively listen have a positive impact on employee attitude and behavior. Listening, however, is not a skill of abundance in management teams. Through on-the-job learning practices, leaders can improve their skills and tactics for encouraging direct feedback. A tutorial that I especially like focuses on how to use of open-ended questions to strike up dialogue and new ideas about the business. Imagine the response and rapport created when a manager sincerely asks: "What can we do better to serve our customers?"; "How do you feel about the changes we are making?"; "Where would you like to see your career going in a year from now?" Staff meetings and one-on-one huddles should be redesigned for listening time that equates to the amount of talk time by the manager. Providing a forum for employees to be heard is a powerful form of recognition.


  • Mind the 3Vs. Managers should learn as much from their employees and vice-versa. Interest fuels the learning process. In their direct communication with associates, managers demonstrate interest on three levels.
    • Visual: How you look.
    • Vocal: How you sound.
    • Verbal: What you say.

Visual mannerisms that click include a firm handshake, a natural smile, direct eye contact (not stare down mode) and a relaxed, inviting posture. Regarding vocals, a calm, upbeat speaking tone will resonate positively with others. Finally, managers should practice and refine small talk to improve their verbal and interpersonal skills.

This article was adapted from our piece "It's the Little Things that Managers Do That Count Big in Employee Recognition" which appeared in IABC's Communication World in July 2011.


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