Rewarding the Hidden Middle

80621060Think about the organization that you work for and ask the question, “What would happen if 80% of our employees walked out the door tomorrow?”

We can agree that this scenario is very unlikely. However, most organizations spend a majority of their time and effort focusing on the star performers or employees with performance issues – the top and bottom 10%, let’s say. This leaves a very large majority of employees in the middle of the organization, the 80%, hidden and relatively unacknowledged.

We take the hidden middle for granted. This observation is not a criticism, but reality. Think about your favorite sports team; it’s likely that you can name off the superstar players who receive big contracts and endorsement deals or the players who have drama that surround them. These people are repeatedly mentioned in the media and get attention. But can any sports team operate with only one or two players? No.

Our organizations are similar to sports teams. We operate at the highest levels of effectiveness when we work as a whole. The majority of our employees come to work each day and do a great job for the organization with little fanfare. As leaders in our organizations, we should reflect on our current practices and ask ourselves, “Are we doing enough for everyone in our organizations? What can we do for those steady performers in the middle?”

First, start with making a list of employees who you might identify as in the hidden middle. These are employees who come to work every day and do exactly what is expected of them. They might be employees who are working remotely or in departments that keep them isolated from others. Or perhaps they are working for very demanding or inexperienced supervisors and yet are still performing relatively quietly and at a high level. A list helps you to realize who these individuals are, and to watch for opportunities to recognize them.

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What things can we do to keep all employees, in particular our hidden middle, even more engaged and loyal to our organizations? The answer to that question might be even more simple than you think. Below are some techniques that I have used.

Say thank you. This seems like such a small thing, but if you go out of your way to thank someone for a job well done, it goes a long way. And want to get extra credit? Hand write a note of thanks. It may seem old fashioned, but people value them. Employees will set them on their desks or hang them on their workstations.

Provide opportunities for professional development and networking. This could be as small as working on a project with a department that is new to that employee or attending an annual conference.

Provide regular performance feedback. Providing feedback is critical to employee satisfaction. Annual performance evaluations are not frequent enough and usually not specific enough. Meet regularly with the employee to discuss their role and impact on projects for the organization. The meeting can be brief and more informal in nature. Help them connect their role to the organization’s business strategy and results.

Ask for their input or suggestions. Input could be related to a process, policy, project or some other topic that is relevant to their role or department. Include the hidden middle in decisions and trust them with information.

Ask people how they would like to be recognized. One size does not fit all, and some employees do not want praise and attention showered upon them. As new employees come into the organization, use it as an opportunity to ask how they like to be recognized for work done well. Give them some reasonable options to choose from and open it up for suggestions. You never know what creative answers you might get back.

Recognize the team/department. Use team meetings or team outings as a way to recognize the group as a whole. Even though people know each other, use a crazy ice breaker activity to get the group talking and sharing.

There may be other tactics that have worked for you and I would encourage you to share those with your fellow leaders and at your organization. It is our responsibility as leaders of our organizations to appreciate the value of the hidden middle, to recognize their work, and to keep them engaged and loyal to our organizations.

MORE: The Manager’s Employee Engagement Checklist

Debra Jerome
Debra Jerome is chief human resources officer of Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm headquartered in an Oak Brook, Ill.

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