Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Who is Ernest Brown? And why should we care?

Last week when I was driving along the intersection of Broadway and West End I stumbled upon this sign. As I was sitting at a red light reading it, a couple of thoughts popped into my head...
1. Who is Ernest Brown?
2. What did Ernest Brown think when he drove to work one day and saw this sign?
3. Whose idea was this?

I could only imagine that Ernest felt like a million bucks as he drove into the parking lot. After stopping in and asking about Ernest I came to find out that he was one of the first African American car salesmen in Tennessee and that he now works in the showroom helping people decipher their owner’s manuals. And it was the CEO that decided to put those words of appreciation up for Ernest.

So this got me thinking…

What should a leader’s role be in appreciating employees? Should they be the ones doing the appreciating or should this task be handed down to someone else altogether? Furthermore, why should we even take time to appreciate and value the work that others do? It is their job after all. I think one of the many challenges today in the workplace is that many people feel undervalued and underappreciated for the amount of time, effort and work that they do. And more often than not these feelings seem to be directly related to job satisfaction. So shouldn’t this be a priority for leaders?

McClelland’s needs theory and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs both talk from different perspectives about what people really “need” to achieve self fulfillment. Even though the need for appreciation isn’t explicitly stated in these theories I think if we read between the lines this need is clearly shown. I imagine all of us can think of a time where we could have really used a word of affirmation from our leader. So why are the simple words, “thank you” or “nice job” missing from many leaders vocabulary? Have we have lost sight of the value of a sincere compliment? In our text DePree states, “Leadership is a position of servanthood…Without understanding the cares, yearnings, and struggles of the human spirit, how could anyone presume to lead a group of people across the street?” (The Attributes of Leadership: A Checklist, 1992) Many times I think we take the term servanthood and servant leader to mean something extreme. But, I think in this case and as mentioned in many other articles this type of servanthood is based more around empathy, appreciation, and empowerment than anything else.

Some of our texts debate the importance of the leader’s role in being a cheerleader for the company. While I don’t think in any way that managers, CEO’s, or any other leaders should get out their pom-poms; I do think that to some extent all employees/followers need to know that their leader believes in them. Showing appreciation is one way that leaders can help their followers and themselves. Once leaders begin to build rapport with their followers their referent power grows. This gives leverage to the leader so that they can more easily motivate and mobilize their followers towards their collective purpose (Power, Influence, and Influence Tactics, 1993). We are all much more likely to follow someone that we believe, believes in us. There is power in followership. Geneen states, “Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and action…So, far as I can see, the best way to inspire people to superior performance is to convince them by everything you do and by your everyday attitude that you are wholeheartedly supporting them” (Leadership, 1998).

This simple, but positive example of a leader appreciating their employee is powerful. In today’s culture of job uncertainty and dissatisfaction it’s important that leaders in society, business, and government take time to appreciate, nurture, and motivate those below them.

After all, there aren’t many Ernest Brown’s of the world that have worked for a company for 44 years.

As leaders and followers, maybe it’s time we all took a good hard look at how we appreciate and value those important to us.