Go team!

A new year – and a new approach to leading your staff.

If there was ever a time to make a list, it’s now. The new year inspires us to itemize old practices that aren’t working and make a checklist of new, innovative ideas.

To be a great manager with an engaged, motivated, happy team, your to-do list is all about tossing motivational techniques that aren’t delivering and seeking new incentives to test. Whether you lead a tiny staff at a startup, a group of 60 at a large organization or a handful of pros gathered for a short-term project, finding a leadership style that energizes your team is crucial.

“Employees who are happier, healthier and more fulfilled have a major impact on the bottom line,” says Ottawa-based Phil Wilson, vice-president of human resources and business development for eastern and northern Ontario for Felix Global, an HR consulting firm.

Here’s a leadership checklist for 2014 that will help you toss out the ineffective and bring in the truly meaningful.

Your to-do checklist

Say thank you. So simple, so inexpensive and so quick. Bob Nelson, who has a PhD in management and runs consulting firm Nelson Motivation in San Diego, once met a division head for an insurance company who sent a handwritten thank-you to a staff member at a satellite office and saw it, six months later, taped to her cubicle wall. “I didn’t even know you knew I worked on that project,” she told him. “It means the world to me that you wrote me that note.” Forever after, that manager was a convert to showing his appreciation.

Nelson says those who work in accounting may tend toward introversion and can find stepping up to say thank you a challenge. He says it’s worth pushing yourself to thank employees for the work — not their personality or mere attendance — and to be clear about what they did to make a difference and how it benefited the team or the company.

Say it personally, in front of a group or write it down in an email or a handwritten note — it depends on the person and the situation. “Say it as soon and as sincerely as possible,” says Karen Epp, a senior recruiter who specializes in the accounting and finance industries with Goldbeck Recruiting in Vancouver.

Customize your rewards. When your team completes a project with a brutal deadline on time, or its work impresses the CEO, avoid turning to the standard go-to rewards your company relies upon — be they gift cards for a meal out or a Friday afternoon off. Instead, ask the team members what they want. After all, workplace studies show that employees with a sense of control are happier overall.

“Maybe they want a pancake breakfast and have the managers serve them. You won’t know until you ask,” says Nelson. Wilson has done this with teams in the past and they’ve requested professional development courses and more events such as small picnics and wine tastings to help team members get to know each other better.

Open up. When you gather your team in the new year and tell it what’s going on at the company level — strategic direction, market forces — and also what your team’s goals and role in it all will be, you’re quieting the potentially destructive rumour mill. “If you don’t tell people what’s going on, they start to figure things out on their own,” says James Hunter, a Montreal-based leadership consultant and coach. “The team starts making decisions about what their own reality is.”

While an ill-informed group can easily turn toxic, one that knows what’s going on is more likely to see management as an ally and the work at hand as meaningful. “People need to feel they’re adding value and that they’re valued,” says Epp. Keeping them in the loop does both.

Offer responsibility. The chance to take command in both small and big ways helps employees feel worthy and that they’re moving ahead in their careers. Not everyone can lead a project, but tasks such as running a meeting, organizing a social event or offering an opinion at a high-level meeting can do the trick. But managers often struggle to dole out enough responsibility to go around — without ceding authority — and to make sure the task suits the team member.

“It’s figuring out, when you’ve got five young accountants, how do you manage each one [and] challenge each one, especially when their jobs are somewhat routine,” says Epp. For Hunter, this is the essence of being a strong leader. “Leadership is about individuals and understanding that different people [come in] different sizes. You lead people in different ways.”

Things to nix this year

Being negative. “Being frightened is an effective motivator in the short term and it’s a great way to motivate people to leave,” says Hunter. Micromanaging, berating people for mistakes, complaining about missed quotas and letting negative rumours about the company build all lead to disgruntled team members more eager to leave than please.

“[With] some of the incentives companies use to drive employee engagement, their impact can be lost as a result of being treated badly,” says Wilson. And while that’s not great for the atmosphere in the office, it also can turn into a public relations problem.

“Disengaged employees can have a major impact on your brand,” says Wilson. Not only will upset staffers bad-mouth you at dinner parties, but they could also take to social media to spread the negative word.

Across-the-board rewards programs. Nelson once consulted for a company that automatically gave staff members two movie passes on their birthday. For those who worked in the field away from city amenities, HR, concerned with fairness, wrote these employees a cheque for the value: $1.27 (the tickets were purchased in bulk). “That’s what happens with set programs: they lose their energy and their relevance,” says Nelson.

Employee of the month, cake on set Fridays for everyone with a birthday that month and pins for years of service — none of these celebrate individual people for their tangible work accomplishments in a timely way. “I’ve never met a person who stayed a day later because they got a years-of-service pin,” says Nelson.

Sending mixed messages. Communicating the company’s values and direction on an ongoing basis is critical, but the narrative has to be clear and everyone from the CEO to middle managers has to follow through.

“If you state the value of your organization, and those values are trust and integrity, teamwork and innovation, but you don’t walk the talk, people pick up on that pretty quickly,” says Wilson. The way a company deals with delicate situations such as a merger or letting people go can make or break employee trust and it can spiral downward from there.