Oprah's Favorite 'Favorite Thing'

To motivate your employees, try channeling the media mogul and communicate how much you appreciate them

The show that millions of Oprah Winfrey fans eagerly await all year finally arrived last week. Called Oprah's Favorite Things, it featured gifts, from food to clothing to gadgets, and sparked a frenzy when it was taped in Macon, Ga. But Winfrey announced her real "favorite thing" a few episodes later. Winfrey said that while material things are nice, the greatest gift you can give a person is to communicate how you feel about them.

If you want to be considered an inspiring leader, give Winfrey's favorite "favorite thing"—the gift of appreciation. In the workplace, it will make a world of difference in how you're treated and how your employees treat your customers. According to a Maritz Research poll of 1,300 full-time employees released in October, 2007, managers who are honest, caring, and generous do the best job in motivating employees to deliver great customer service and thereby increase customer loyalty. Researchers call this manager the "caring mentor."

"Employees that serve under this type of manager have the strongest affinity for customers," says Maritz's Rick Garlick. Employees who work for managers who genuinely care about their people also stay with their company longer. The key to becoming a "caring mentor" is to take Oprah's advice—tell people how much they're appreciated.

Give Employees Local Fame

In an interview for Training magazine, Freakonomics coauthor Stephen Dubner explained why it's also important to let others know you value a particular employee. "Consider what I sometimes call 'local fame.' Very few of us want to be (or will ever be) truly famous. What we want is to be famous 'locally,' if even for a short time—that is, known well among our peers, families, friends, etc., for having done something well and noteworthy."

Yes, tell your employees how much you appreciate the skill or dedication they bring to their jobs, but go one better—praise people in front of their peers. Don't just dash off a quick e-mail to the person, copy relevant colleagues on the e-mail as well. During a staff meeting, praise that individual and be specific.

For example, try saying something like this: "I'd like to take a moment before our meeting to tell everyone how impressed I was the other day when I saw how effectively Sue dealt with an angry customer. Sue made eye contact with him, repeated his concerns back to him to let him know she was listening, and told the customer she would solve the problem. As she had promised, she solved the issue and called him back by the end of the day. Sue didn't look for any recognition, but I want to let her know that I was impressed. Now, let's start our meeting. John, are we on track to meet our sales projections…?"

Don't Be Stingy with Praise

The renowned entrepreneur behind the Virgin empire, Richard Branson, once said: "Lavish praise on people, and they flourish; criticize, and they shrivel up." Branson suggests that praise is the key to success in all his relationships, whether as a boss or a father. Showing appreciation and expressing sincere praise is the easiest way to establish a connection with another person.

Jim Thompson, executive director of the national nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance, once told me he turns staff meetings into celebrations. Each meeting begins with 15 minutes of "appreciations and triumphs." It's an opportunity for employees to publicly recognize someone else at the meeting. One person might acknowledge a colleague who stayed late to help assemble material for a presentation or who made a last-minute trip to conduct a new pitch. The average person feels under-appreciated, says Thompson. "But in an environment where people are noticed for good things—or even for taking their best shot if they fail—they're more likely to be fired up."

Adopt Winfrey's suggestion this holiday season. When people receive genuine praise, their doubt diminishes and their spirits soar. If you have examples of how you or other leaders you know used communications skills to show appreciation in the workplace, please e-mail me. I'd enjoy hearing from you.

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