Online While on Vacation? How (and Why) to Unplug

It’s summer, otherwise known as vacation season, and I have a few questions for you: How much of a vacation is your vacation, really? Do you unplug from your job? From social media? If so, to what extent?

I’m asking these questions because I’ve noticed that over the past decade or so, the mountains have become a pine-scented office. The beach has become “just” a gorgeous backdrop for selfies. Stand in line at a theme park, and you’ll probably notice that a majority of the people around you are absorbed in their smartphones.

I’m not knocking technology per se, but I am suggesting that we all examine its role in our vacations. Vacations are supposed to be breaks—from our jobs and from our usual routines. They allow us to relax, recharge, and spend a large quantity of quality time with our loved ones. They boost our creativity and energy, and reduce our stress. But the more our gadgets encroach, the less of those benefits we tend to reap. We’re less mindful, less present, and often, more connected to the things that cause us anxiety.

If you’d like to unplug on your next vacation but aren’t sure where to start, here are a few tips I’ve learned through experience:

Know that plugging in is a slippery slope. You may think, Well, I’ll just respond to this one email, or, I’m just going to play one quick game of Words with Friends. And the next thing you know, an hour or more of vacation time that you can’t get back has passed! Plus, once you make your digital presence known, others know that you’re available, and it will be that much harder to shut down your work email or log off of Twitter. So think twice (and maybe a third time) before opening your laptop.

Talk to your boss beforehand. America is a work-oriented culture, and thanks to computers and smartphones, many of us are used to taking work home with us. Often, the compulsion to be available by email and to check in with coworkers extends to vacation time, too. That’s why I recommend talking with your boss about what his or her expectations are before you hit the road. Ask questions like: Do you expect me to check my work email? If so, how often? If I don’t receive a call from the office, can I assume that all is well? Are there any projects I can work ahead on to make sure that I won’t need to clock in on vacation? If you’re clear on what’s expected, you’ll be less likely to plug in out of paranoia, worry, or guilt.

Set some ground rules. I know that for many people, completely unplugging for days at a time simply isn’t going to happen. And that’s fine—just remember, all things in moderation! Whether you need to check your work email or enjoy scrolling through the latest Instagram updates, talk to the friends and/or family members with whom you’ll be vacationing and set up some ground rules. For instance, you might agree that mealtimes are to be totally screen-free. You might ask your spouse to gently remind you to put your phone away if you’ve been on it for more than 15 minutes. You may even want to set up designated screen times—maybe half an hour after dinner—that everyone adheres to.

Create barriers. What I mean is, make it more difficult to immerse yourself in your device (which, let’s face it, often happens on autopilot!). For instance, some phones allow you to configure their settings so that data isn’t used for specific functions or apps: email, social media, etc. While it’s true that these settings can be easily reversed, the fact that your Facebook feed doesn’t immediately appear may be enough to remind you of your intent to unplug. And if you feel you need to get more extreme, give your phone or laptop to someone else for safekeeping when it isn’t a designated screen time!

Bring other distractions. Often, our laptops and smartphones are sources of entertainment. To prevent yourself from pulling up YouTube every time you feel bored, pack a book, a board game, a sketchbook, a football, a Frisbee, your knitting—or whatever floats your boat!

Realize that your kids will base their habits and priorities on yours. There is a strong likelihood that your children will grow up to be like you. After all, they learn what’s normal, what’s right, and what’s valued by watching their parents. When it comes to influencing your children, your actions definitely speak louder than your words—so while your family is on vacation, be sure you’re not “telling” them that work is more important than family, balance, or happiness.

Yes, in a technology-dominated world, it can be difficult to step away from the gadgets and simply enjoy the here and now. But at no time is it more important to strike a healthy balance than when you’re on vacation. Remember, if you set reasonable rules and boundaries, you can still enjoy technology while not allowing it to take over your time off. And who knows? As the days pass, you might even find that your fingers itch less and less to pick up your phone.

Graduates, stop worrying so much about being successful.

Congratulations, graduates! (And parents of graduates, too.) As you gaze with pride on your diplomas, I’m sure you’re also thinking about what comes next. No doubt you’re planning how to build a successful life with your newly earned degree. I wish you the best of luck as you search for a job and embark on a career…but I also want to extend a viewpoint that you may not have heard in graduation speeches.

It’s simple: Happiness and success are not—let me repeat, are not—necessarily the same thing.

Aren’t they? you ask. I’ve been working my whole life to get a good education and to earn this degree—all so I can hopefully get a job in the field I want and do it well. You’re telling me that successfully achieving this goal won’t make me happy?

Well, no. Don’t get me wrong: Getting a promotion or being recognized for a professional achievement can make you really happy—briefly. But what about all of the weeks, months, and years of work that came before that moment of success?

Personal experience and extensive observation have convinced me that the lifestyle required to become “successful” makes you anything but happy. Long hours, devices that tether us to work 24/7, insufficient time with friends and family, and constant stress drive you into the ground, not to new heights of fulfillment.

The problem is, as a culture, we’re so focused on getting to the next rung of the ladder that we have forgotten how important quality of life is. We have accepted stress, unfulfilling careers, strained relationships, and little free time as the price we have to pay for the “good life.” Meanwhile, happiness has totally gotten lost in the equation, and the lives we’re living aren’t “good” at all.

So, graduates, here’s my advice to you if you’d like to keep your success from destroying your happiness:

  • Do work you enjoy. First (as I’m sure you’ve been told before), try to go into a field that you enjoy—not one that you think will make you rich. While workaholism can sour any passion if taken too far, you’ll generally be a lot more fulfilled if your success is driven by work you like. If you reach the top because you’ve been doing something that you’re passionate about and that you feel is inherently worth your time and energy—and if you keep your work-life balance healthy—you’ll also be happy. It’s when you blindly pursue the symbols of success without regard for the other areas of your life that you run into problems.
  • …But realize that you are not your work. What you do is certainly part of your identity, but it should never become your primary source of self-worth. If you ever begin to feel that the only thing you have to offer the world are achievements that happen on the job, it’s probably time to take a step back. I understand being proud of your career accomplishments and of other things in your life, but I have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can be truly happy only if you draw your self-worth primarily from your relationships: first and foremost from your positive relationship with yourself, and secondarily from your relationships with other people and with your Higher Power (if you believe in one).
  • Understand that you’re never “stuck.” If you’re less satisfied with your field or career than you’d hoped, realize that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself and move in a direction that will make you happier. Find mentors, take classes, pursue certifications, or network—just don’t settle for dissatisfaction and a job you dread.
  • Choose happiness every day. With all of the responsibilities on your plate, nothing is likely to improve unless you specifically focus on it. So make working towards a happier life one of the two or three priorities you absolutely must accomplish each day. To remind yourself, put a note where you can see it—maybe on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror. I could write a book (and have!) on how to infuse happiness into your life, but briefly, some happiness-boosting activities you can choose to incorporate into each day include: exercising, reading motivational material, learning new things, helping others, expressing gratitude, spending time on a hobby, fully engaging (sans devices!) with loved ones, etc.
  • Look at the road ahead of you through the eyes of those who have traveled it. Yes, I know you’re young right now, but someday, you’ll be looking back at and evaluating your life. You don’t want it to be filled with regrets. That’s why I’d highly recommend reading an article called “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse. Like Bronnie, I believe that individuals who are nearing the end of their time on Earth may see things more clearly than those of us who are still “in the thick of things.” And I also believe that it’s definitely not a coincidence that nearly all individuals who are facing death share the same regrets. One of them is “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” Turns out, professional success doesn’t hold a candle to being a good spouse, parent, and friend in terms of the fulfillment it brings.

Grads, you get only one shot at life. If you prioritize happiness and the things that really matter right out of the gate, you’ll also be creating a firm foundation on which to build professional success. Why? You have a strong support system, a soft place to land, and a healthy work-life balance—all of which will contribute to your creativity, motivation, and engagement over the long haul.

Congratulations, Class of 2014. Here’s to happiness!

Oh, Happy Workday: 14 Ways to Boost Your Mood at Work

If you’re like many Americans, your job doesn’t exactly thrill you. Maybe you don’t loathe it, and maybe you even acknowledge that it’s a good fit for your skills, but still…work is work. You come in each morning, do what you have to do, and leave the pursuit of happiness for your personal time.

I’m not going to patronize you and tell you that yes, you have the power to feel totally, completely, and incandescently happy from 9 to 5 each weekday. Like anyone who’s lived in the real world for more than five minutes, I know that work isn’t always fun and games. (In fact, early in my career, my family was genuinely concerned about my physical and mental health due to job-related stress!) But you know what? It is in your power to become happier at work.

When you focus on improving the simple things that are within your control, you’ll improve your attitude and be better equipped to handle the not-so-simple things that aren’t within your control, like fractious clients and looming deadlines.

Here are 14 tactics to boost your on-the-job happiness that I’ve collected over the years, ranging from the familiar to the surprising to the “why didn’t I think of that?”

  • Decide to be in a good mood. Make a conscious decision to be in a good mood each morning and make it part of your brand (even when you aren’t feeling so chipper). Put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or set an alarm on your phone to remind you of this intention. Often, you’ll be surprised to find that a “fake” smile becomes genuine as the day goes on. Whatever you do, don’t give everyone at the water cooler a play-by-play of the hectic morning you had or the argument you and your spouse got into the previous evening.
  • Take exercise breaks. Especially if you have a job that requires you to sit at a desk for long periods of time, I can’t overstate how important it is to get up every hour or two and move your muscles. Go for a walk around the building, walk up and down a flight of stairs, or stretch out with a few yoga poses. I promise, even a few minutes of activity can help you destress and improve your mood and focus.
  • Personalize your space. I know a lot of people whose cubicles and offices remain as generic throughout their careers as they were the day they were assigned. But unless there’s a rule specifically prohibiting it, I say let your inner interior decorator loose! Plants, pictures of your family, inspirational quotes, small sculptures, awards, even funny cartoons clipped from the paper—all of these things can make you smile and help you to feel comfortable in your workspace.
  • Be a poser. Body language isn’t just a way to communicate nonverbally with others. Research shows that your stance can actually influence your own mood and mindset, too! So-called “power poses” like lifting your head and chest and placing your hands on your hips can help you to feel more confident and less stressed. If you’re interested in learning more, here is a link to a very interesting article and TED Talk on power posing.
  • Allow food to work for you. If at all possible, don’t eat lunch at your desk. Going somewhere else for your meal, even if it’s just the break room, will give you a much-needed respite from the tasks you’ve been working on and the tension you may be feeling. It’s even better if you can eat with colleagues and/or friends whose company you enjoy. And whenever you eat, whether it’s a meal or a snack, try to avoid junk. The food we put into our bodies has a real impact on how we feel physically and mentally. Choose foods that will boost your energy, not ones that will make you feel sluggish or cause you to “crash” in a few hours.
  • Mark your calendar. Of course you have all of your work meetings and deadlines marked on your calendar. If you haven’t already, pencil in personal events, too: family vacations, drinks with your girlfriends, poker night with the guys, your child’s school play, etc. Being reminded of things you’re looking forward to outside of work will lift your mood, give you something to look forward to, and remind you to pay attention to your work/life balance.
  • Use those vacation days. Sounds straightforward, sure, but 70 percent of North American workers don’t use all of their vacation days! I understand that sometimes our desires just don’t line up with reality, but much more often, I think, we let guilt or a misplaced sense of obligation push us in the direction of workaholism. Even if you don’t have time for the tropical vacation you’ve been dreaming about, a three-day weekend getaway can still do wonders for your attitude and resilience. Hey, they’re not called “mental health days” for nothing!
  • Clean up your office. Seriously, even if you protest that you’re a “naturally messy” person and you know where everything is in the chaos, nobody does their best work in a cluttered, dirty environment. I’m not saying that you have to hire a professional organizer. Start by doing a few simple things like clearing the piles of paperwork off your desk and putting each document in the appropriate file, getting rid of the flotsam you no longer use (broken staplers, dried-up pens, etc.), and scrubbing your desktop with a disinfecting wipe. I guarantee that having an organized, orderly workspace will put you in a better mindset to work, and in turn, being productive will improve your mood.
  • Be a team player. Yes, you could be an office hermit, stick solely to your own to-do list, and scoot out the door as quickly as possible each day. But if you push yourself to be a team player, you might find that you’re in a consistently better mood. So offer your help, opinions, and guidance to others. This will enable you to build more positive relationships with your coworkers (e.g., less drama!), and, as “givers” the world over know, helping others is a great way to feel the warm fuzzies.
  • Quit procrastinating. We all know what it’s like to dread certain items on our to-do lists. What you might not realize is how big of an impact these tasks have on our moods while they’re hanging over our heads. For the next week, I challenge you to look at your to-do list each morning and tackle the thing you want to do least, first. I bet you’ll be surprised by how much better you feel throughout the rest of the day.
  • Come in a little early as often as you can. This gives you a bit of breathing space that sets the tone for the rest of the day. It lets you get a jump start on projects and eliminates that “behind the eight ball” feeling that stresses you out until—and even after—it’s time to go home.
  • Have some fun. All work and no play really does make you a dull employee! If you’re able (i.e., if you won’t be violating company policy or risking censure), set aside a few 10- to 15-minute blocks each day for enjoying yourself. You can play a computer game, read a book, shoot some hoops (buy a miniature basketball goal that clips onto your office door), or whatever else you choose. The point is to totally step away from your work and place your attention on something that you enjoy. It’s a really effective way to improve your focus and resilience and to recharge your creativity.
  • Listen to some tunes. But isn’t music a distraction? you ask. Not necessarily. At the very least, putting on some headphones is a better alternative than listening to your cubicle-mates’ conversations, or to flinching every time you hear Cameron across the hall blow his nose. And believe it or not, some experts say that listening to music at work can boost creativity and productivity. If you’d like to learn more, here’s an interesting article on the role of music in the workplace.
  • Space out stressful meetings. If you can, give yourself time to recover between stressful meetings. It’s feasible to bounce back after one intense conversation or debate, but several in a row can completely erode your resilience.

Like it or not, you spend 40+ hours a week at work. So do yourself a favor and do what you can to boost your mood!

10 Things Your Employees Are Dying to Hear from You

Business leaders and owners: What were your last 10 or 15 employee conversations like? Chances are, they included phrases like, “I need you to finish that projection by the end of the day,” or, “I’m putting you on the Brown account,” or, “How much longer do you think it’ll take to finish that PowerPoint the client requested?”

As I know from personal experience, you can’t run a business without addressing these types of issues. (And chances are, unless they’re delivered in a, shall we say, forceful tone of voice, your employees don’t mind hearing pertinent instructions and questions.) But as I learned early on in my career, if your conversations with employees don’t include other types of phrases, too, your team’s morale will probably suffer. Let me explain.

In the midst of the everyday chaos of running a business, leaders often don’t think about what they could or should say to motivate their employees. Often, those leaders assume that their employees know how they feel—about each person’s individual performance and about the company’s health in general. Usually, though, that’s not the case.

They’d never bring it up themselves, but your employees really want to receive affirmation, encouragement, reassurance, respect, and gratitude from you. When you verbalize these things—which takes only a few seconds of your time!—you will notice a big change in your employees’ motivation, commitment, and productivity.

Here are ten phrases that got great results for me at Autopart International. If you start incorporating them into your at-work vocabulary, your employees’ engagement will “blossom” this spring:

*“I need your help.” Yes, your employees will be looking to you to steer your company in the right direction, but I promise, they know you’re human, and they don’t expect you to have all the answers. So the next time you’re facing a difficult decision or brainstorming options, ask your team for help. Rather than losing respect for you as a leader, they’ll appreciate that you treated them as valued partners—and they’ll feel more invested in your company’s future because they had more of a hand in creating it.

*“What do you need from me?” Often, employees are anxious about asking the boss for what they need, whether it’s updated office equipment, more time to complete a project, advice, etc. By explicitly asking what you can give them, you extend permission for your people to make those requests. Be sure to treat any requests you receive seriously. If you can’t give an employee what she asks for, explain why and work with her to find another solution. Either way, this question, and the conversations it sparks, can give you valuable insight regarding how to improve your company’s operations, facilities, and culture. It can also show you how to best develop and support individual team members.

*“I noticed what you did.” Every day, your employees do a lot of “little” things that keep your company running smoothly and customers coming back: Refilling the copier with paper when it’s empty. Smiling at customers after each transaction. Double-checking reports for errors before sending them on. And so forth. Unfortunately, in many organizations, these everyday actions are taken for granted, which (understandably) has a negative effect on employee morale. Let your employees know that you notice and value the mundane parts of their jobs by “catching” as many of them as possible in a good act, and pointing out exactly what it is about their behavior that you appreciate.

*“Thank you.” Yes, your employees may crave recognition for doing the mundane parts of their jobs, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t also appreciate a heartfelt “thank you” for bigger accomplishments. Whether it’s “Thanks for staying late last night,” “Thanks for being so patient with Mrs. Smith—I know she can be a difficult customer,” “Thank you for making our first-quarter marketing campaign a success,” or something else, your people will treasure your appreciation more than you realize. And don’t just praise your employees in private—recognize them in public, too. Talk about their accomplishments in front of the whole team, recognize them in company newsletters, and even call their families to brag on them!

*“What would you like to do here?” Sure, you originally hired each of your employees to do specific jobs. But over time, your company has grown and changed—and so have your people. Periodically (perhaps at annual performance reviews) ask what they’d like to be doing. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that your administrative assistant would like to be included in the next marketing campaign design team. You might be even more (pleasantly!) surprised to find that her social media engagement ideas yield impressive results. No, you won’t always be able to accommodate every employee’s preferences. But whenever possible, keep job descriptions within your company fluid and allow your people to have a say in matching their skills to the company’s needs. This is one of the best ways I know to build loyalty and encourage your employees to really take ownership of their jobs.

*“I have bad news.” Your instinct might be to play down negative developments, or even keep them to yourself entirely. Nobody wants to be the person who says, “We’re going to have to eliminate some positions over the next six months,” for instance. Nevertheless, your employees deserve to hear the truth from you as soon as possible. They aren’t stupid and will be able to tell when something is “up” even if you don’t acknowledge it. By refusing to share bad news, you’ll only increase paranoia and anxiousness—neither of which are good for engagement or productivity. But when you treat your people like responsible adults by being honest and open, they will appreciate your transparency…and often, you’ll find that they’re willing to voluntarily double their efforts to help you turn the tide.

*“Here’s how our company works and where we stand.” When you make a point of showing everyone how your business “works” and how their specific job descriptions fit into the overall “machinery,” you’ll find that us-versus-them thinking tends to decline, and that profit-minded solutions begin to proliferate. At Autopart International, one of the best management decisions I ever made was showing my employees “the numbers” on a regular basis. I made sure that everyone understood the relationship between their performance and the bottom line—and thus their own pay. Several employees told me that my transparency prompted them to think more carefully about how their own everyday choices and efforts affected the bigger picture.

*“You deserve a reward.” Simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far more happy than, say, big salaries and corner offices. However, I won’t deny that more tangible rewards like bonuses, vacation time, prime parking spaces, benefits, and more have their place in raising employee engagement. When resources allow, look for ways to reward your employees for their hard work. Remember, nobody wants to work for a Scrooge! At Autopart International, I thanked employees with everything from sports tickets to door prize drawings to lavish company parties to vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. I found that when I treated my employees like royalty, they worked extra-hard to be the recipients of these perks…and they were much more resistant to moving when offers to work for “the other guys” occasionally came their way.

*“I know you can do it.” Of course you should try to hire employees who are confident and self-directed. But even the most self-assured individuals appreciate an explicit vote of confidence from their leaders! Constantly challenge your people and push them to improve while reassuring them that you believe in them. At Autopart International, I told my employees that I believed in their ability to help our company grow—so much so that I wanted to introduce the concept of performance-based pay with no cap. I found that when a leader is willing to bet large amounts of money on employees’ potential achievements, those employees will work harder for you—and for themselves!—than you ever thought possible. With this strategy, everyone wins.

*“This task is in your hands—I’m stepping back.” Most micromanaging leaders don’t set out to annoy or smother their employees. The problem is, they care—a lot!—and want to make sure everything is done just so. But excessive hovering can give employees the impression that you don’t trust them or have faith in them—a belief that actively undermines engagement. So once you’ve delegated a task, step back and let your employees do what you’ve asked of them. Yes, I know that can be easier said than done. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go refill your coffee cup to keep yourself from hovering! It may also help to remind yourself that you hired each of your employees for a reason, that you have faith in their potential, and that if they do need help, they know where to find you.

Remember, business is always personal. Specifically, it’s about reaching and motivating each of your employees on a personal level so that they care about contributing to your organization’s ultimate success. This spring, which phrases will you be adding to your at-work vocabulary?

 

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How to Boost Employee Engagement: Part 2

Unless you’ve been living under a cultural rock, you’ve seen the popular 1999 film Office Space. And if you’re like millions of Americans, you know all too well what the film’s characters mean when they refer to “a case of The Mondays”: low-grade dread, sluggishness, a lack of motivation, and an overall sense of disengagement when it comes to your job. These feelings inspire workers to do only the bare minimum necessary to avoid being fired, and they can easily bleed beyond the first day of the workweek.

As a leader, you don’t need to be told just what a negative effect this “ailment” can have on your company’s culture, bottom line, and employee turnover. What you do need are real-world tactics to help banish The Mondays from your organization.

In my last blog post, I shared my belief that the “cure” for The Mondays is actually pretty simple: To create more workplace happiness, motivation, and productivity, you need to show your people more gratitude, individual recognition, and (yes!) love. Believe it or not, these things make employees happier in their day-to-day work lives than huge salaries and corner offices!

I’ve already shared three tactics to help you cultivate happy, engaged employees:

  • Catch people doing things right.
  • Praise employees publicly as often as possible.
  • Handle mistakes with care.

Here are five more tactics to add to that list:

Don’t be the sole decision maker. Maybe you’ve never put much emphasis on the thoughts and opinions of your employees. After all, you pay them a fair wage to come to work each day and perform specific tasks. As a leader, it’s your job to decide what those tasks should be and how they should be carried out, right? Well, yes—strictly speaking. However, this unilateral approach to leading your team sends the impression that you’re superior (even if that’s not your intent) and also contributes to disengagement.

You see, employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by seeking out their opinions, ideas, and preferences. They’ll be much more invested in your organization’s success because they had an active part in creating it. And here’s some good news that may surprise you: Your employees probably won’t care as much as you think they will if their suggestion doesn’t become reality. Mostly, they just want to know that their voice was heard by the people in charge.

Help your employees grow. As a leader, there’s a lot you have to deal with on a daily basis: Meeting quotas. Making sure procedures are followed. Keeping up with advances in your field. Learning and disseminating company policy. The list goes on. But no matter how full of “stuff” your plate is, don’t forget that a crucial part of leadership is developing your people.

Ultimately, the success or failure of your business depends on the people who show up each day to do the work, so place a strong emphasis on developing them. Give each member of your team progressively more autonomy, authority, and responsibility when they show they can handle it. When they feel challenged and know that their talents are being utilized, your employees will be more engaged. And whatever you do, avoid micromanaging, which can give employees the impression that you don’t have faith in them. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go for a walk to keep yourself from hovering!

Remember that business is personal. Your employees will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. So get to know each team member on an individual basis and incorporate that knowledge into your regular interactions. For instance, if you know that John in Accounting has a daughter who’s applying to college, ask him which schools she’s considering. Or if Susanna in HR just came back from vacation, ask to see a few pictures.

Actually, showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know. When you dare to “get personal,” your employees’ desire to please you will skyrocket. That’s why, when I was leading Autopart International, I took advantage of every opportunity I could think of to let my people know I was thinking about them. I recommended books I thought they might enjoy. I sent motivational quotes to employees who might appreciate them. I attended all weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and graduations I was invited to. And guess what? Not only did I boost employee engagement…I also formed a lot of meaningful relationships that continue to this day.

Make it a family affair. Whenever possible, engage your employees’ families in a positive way. In addition to holding contests with family prizes and inviting loved ones to company celebrations, make sure that your team members’ families know how much they’re appreciated by your company. Having a leader validate all the hours each employee spends at work will be remembered far longer than a bonus (really!). Plus, when spouses and kids know what Mom or Dad does at work and are “on board” with it, your employee’s performance will be buoyed by support from the ones he or she loves the most.

For example, if an employee at Autopart International did something really tremendous, I would call his home, generally trying to get the answering machine and not a person. Then I’d leave a voicemail like this one:

Hi, (name of spouse and kids), this is Todd Patkin from Autopart International where your husband and dad works. I just want to tell you that he is incredible! He just broke our Nashua, New Hampshire, store’s all-time sales record. Guys, that is tremendous! So, please, kids, do me a favor. When your dad comes home tonight, everyone run up and give him a huge hug and tell him how proud you are of him and how great he is. And, (name of spouse), I hope you will give him a wonderful kiss to make sure he knows how much you love him and how much he is appreciated for all he’s doing for our company. Thanks, guys.

Years later, many employees whose families received these phone calls told me that although they didn’t remember how much their bonus checks were for that year, that extra-special homecoming was still clearly etched in their memories. And you know what? Leaving that message cost me next to nothing.

Re-recruit your best people. Since the buck stops with you, it can be tempting to focus the bulk of your help and encouragement on your lower performers. If I can help Ted and Tina boost their numbers, the thinking goes, this entire department will be better off. Plus, I just don’t want to explain their dismal performance to my boss. While it is your duty to help your weak links move up in (or out of) your organization, your efforts are actually best spent with your top people. Just think of how much more impressive their already-great work could be with some more encouragement and guidance. Also, think of how far back your team would slide if these MVPs decided to hand in their notice and work for the competition.

You should go as all-out in “re-recruiting” your top people as you would in attracting new talent. At Autopart International, I regularly thanked my top performers and gave them tickets to concerts and sporting events, gift certificates to restaurants, etc. in order to show the depth of my appreciation. And considering what it would have cost in turnover to attract and train suitable replacements, well, I never considered those expenses to be anything other than money well spent.

If there is one thing I would like to tell all leaders at all levels and in all industries, it’s that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain—including an improved bottom line—by making your organization as happy a place to work as possible. While a lack of employee engagement is certainly a costly problem, its solution doesn’t have to be.

How to Boost Employee Engagement: Part 1

We all know that employee engagement matters. Yet again and again, studies point to a pervasive lack of it (for instance, a recent Gallup report indicates that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged), as well as the incredible costs of this problem. No one can deny that disengaged employees are less productive, less innovative, less collaborative…less everything that leads to successful organizations. Yet, despite all the handwringing, no one seems to know what to do about it.

That’s not particularly surprising. After all, it’s not like companies have the money to spend on lavish perks or formal “engagement” initiatives these days, nor do busy leaders have the time to obsess over such matters. Everyone’s just trying to survive.

Well, here’s some good news. I know for a fact that true employee engagement needn’t be expensive or difficult to implement. Engagement is really just another word for on-the-job happiness…and we intuitively know that happiness is connected to the simple things in life. So why not apply that principle to the workplace?

I first tested this theory out when I was leading (along with my father and brother) Autopart International. (It was sold to Advance Auto Parts in 2005.) I knew that the key to our company’s growth and success was to have motivated, fulfilled, and inspired employees. I wanted everyone who worked for us to have great attitudes about their jobs. And after testing out a few “motivation plans,” I realized that—believe it or not—simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far more happy day-to-day than big salaries and corner offices. Best of all, these things are free and usually easy to provide.

If you’re wondering what the catch is, it’s that you might have to put some work into changing the leadership habits that might be keeping your employees beaten down and resentful. But doing that work is worth it. It’s the cornerstone of a cultural change that will naturally and organically lead to better employee engagement.

Here are three employee engagement strategies to help you get started. In my next blog post, I’ll describe five more.

Catch people doing things right. Everyone knows how embarrassing and stressful it is when the boss catches you doing something wrong. And for most employees, those negative feelings can linger (and impact performance) for hours, days, or longer. That’s why, if you don’t want your team to dread your presence in their workspace, you need to start each day with the intention of catching as many people as possible doing well.

People love to hear positive feedback about themselves, and in most cases, they’ll be willing to work a lot harder to keep the compliments coming. That’s because praise, especially when it comes from an authority figure, is incredibly fulfilling. (And sadly, it’s also rare.) Phrases like, “Bob, I’ve noticed that you always double-check your reports for errors, and I want to thank you for your commitment to quality,” or, “Sue, you always take such care to keep the file room neat. Thank you so much!” take about five seconds to say, but they can pay long-lasting dividends for your company.

Praise them publicly (and then praise them some more). Even if they brush off praise or downplay their achievements, everybody loves to be recognized and complimented in front of their peers. So don’t stop with a “mere” compliment when you catch an employee doing something right—tell the rest of the team, too! Whether correctly or incorrectly, many employees feel that their leaders take them for granted and point out only their mistakes in front of the group, so make it your daily mission to prove that perception wrong.

When I was at Autopart International and I saw that one of my people did something noteworthy, I made sure that everyone else knew about it by emailing the story to the entire chain. I could literally see the glow on the highlighted employee’s face for weeks, and I also noticed that many of the other team members began to work even harder in order to earn a write-up themselves. Other successful recognition strategies included writing thank-you notes to my employees and publishing a company-wide monthly newsletter highlighting our “stars.” During our best months, it might include everyone from upper management to drivers to floor and road salespeople, and was often over 30 pages long!

Handle mistakes with care. In business, mistakes are going to happen. You don’t have a choice about that. What you can choose is how you as a leader handle them—and by extension, what kind of impact they have on your company. Sure, lambasting an employee who has dropped the ball may make you feel better in the short term, but it’ll negatively impact that employee’s self-confidence, relationship with you, and feelings for your company for much longer.

Don’t get me wrong: You shouldn’t take mistakes, especially those involving negligence, incompetence, or dishonesty, lightly. But when your employees have made an honest mistake, try to be as understanding with them as you would be with your own family members. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the employee feels very bad already, and that yelling or lecturing won’t change the past. Instead, focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. Did the employee (or the company as a whole) learn something? Should a process or procedure be tweaked going forward to reduce the chances of something similar reoccurring?

Also, never forget that mistakes are an essential part of growth. The innovation and creativity it takes to grow a business will be accompanied by setbacks and slip-ups. You don’t want to create an environment where people don’t take potentially productive risks because they’re afraid you’ll get mad if they screw up.

Be sure to check back for my next blog post, in which I’ll share five more employee engagement strategies that really work—and that won’t blow your budget.

The Importance of Improving Close Relationships

Recently, I blogged about how important it is to seek out positive people and also to avoid putting yourself needlessly into situations that drain you or are harmful to your attitude. That’s easy to do when we’re talking about, say, Pessimistic Peter in the accounting department. He’s not an integral part of your life, and it’s realistic to avoid his rants in the break room.

What’s not realistic is to avoid, say, a brother (who might always think he’s a victim), or a best friend (who has a tendency to dwell on how nasty her ex-husband is), or a mother-in-law (who constantly nitpicks), or even a spouse or significant other (who likes to point out everything that’s going wrong in your lives).

Obviously, I think it would be irresponsible, unwise, and even cruel to cut these relationships out of your life without a second thought. You see, while I stand by the importance of surrounding yourself with positive people, I also think that it’s always a good idea to put work into improving and strengthening your closest relationships. Think about it this way: Relationships are a two-way street. You can’t write them off without doing your part to make them work!

In my book, I recommend making a list of all of the people who are important to you. It might include friends, colleagues, neighbors, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and of course, most importantly, your own immediate family. Over the next six months to a year, make it your goal to reach out to each of these individuals, whether it’s through a phone call, a visit, or plans to go putt-putting together. Tell these people why they’re important to you and how they make your life better, and that you appreciate them or even love them.

And if there are any points of contention, anger, or unresolved grudges, make a sincere effort to resolve them. In most cases, you won’t significantly strengthen or improve these relationships in just one conversation. But you’ll have made a start. And if you regularly keep in mind why each of the people on your list is important to you, you’ll be motivated to reach out to them more regularly and to work through any negativity that might be keeping you from growing closer.

Now, I want to mention a few groups of people who should always be at the top of your relationship-strengthening list. One group is your parents. If you, like me, are blessed to still have spry, loving parents in your life, don’t take them for granted. (A friend who has lost his mother and father constantly reminds me of this.) There is no substitute for learning from your parents and letting them know how important they have been—and continue to be—in your life.

And those of you who know me well won’t be surprised by what I’m going to say next: The people on your list whom you must absolutely prioritize the most are your children (if you have any) and your spouse or significant other. First, you must realize that your children need to feel your love unconditionally and at all times, not only when they get a great report card and score goals on the soccer field. Also, it is devastating to children when their parents are clearly with them only in body and not in mind. (You know what I mean: You’re eating a bowl of ice cream with your kids, but you’re really thinking about the office, for instance.)

As for your spouse or significant other, it’s crucial to realize that this is the person who sees you every day at your best and at your worst, who is a partner in raising your kids, whose support can make or break your success, and whose attitude is integral to your own happiness (and vice versa!).

To put it bluntly, you must make your marriage your number one priority each and every day; otherwise, it will deteriorate just as surely as your car would without maintenance. In fact, I often think that marriage vows should be changed to something like this: “I promise to love you for better or for worse, in sickness and in health…so long as you continue to make me feel special and appreciated.” This new vow might sound funny at first, I know—but it’s also something that must be non-negotiable if you want to have a strong, successful relationship. Too many of us forget that we all need to feel special, appreciated, and good about ourselves, especially in the comfort of our own homes.

My best advice is to celebrate your spouse every day. In my case, I tell Yadira how beautiful she is and how much I love her many, many times each day. I even bring her flowers on occasion “just because.” We plan special nights out and we constantly show affection. I have found that when your spouse knows how much she (or he!) means to you, your marriage won’t be problem free…but it will be based on much more positive interactions and on increasing amounts of love. And trust me—that can make all the difference!

Remember, life is all about people. And the stronger your relationships are with your friends and loved ones, the happier you will be.