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Using employee recognition to set the right workplace tone

6 min read

Using employee recognition to set the right workplace tone

When it comes time to shift your values and transform your organization, employee recognition is key.


John Leeburn is busy shifting the values and workplace “tone” at the City of Port Coquitlam. In this Leadership Conversation he explains how simple, real-time employee recognition is a key part of accomplishing this.

In part 1 of this discussion, John Leeburn talked about the kind of leadership changes he is making. This discussion digs deeper into some of his tactics for getting employees allied with these changes.

Brad: What are some of the other values you are trying to reinforce?

John: One that might be a bit different, that certainly wasn't an issue in my previous place of employment, but is here, is the T in ELASTICity, which is for "tone." Tone recognizes that although we do serious work, we don't have to take ourselves so seriously. This place was, and still is, in my opinion, way too politically correct, anal, and sphincter-tight.

People are going to do their best when they feel comfortable and confident.

People are going to do their best when they feel comfortable and confident. How do we create a tone, a workplace that people can have a laugh, and laugh at themselves, and laugh with each other, yet, still do really important work? I'm not saying turn it into a country club. I'm not saying don't take it seriously. I'm just saying, in doing serious work - we all spend a lot of time here - let's enjoy ourselves.

We all spend a lot of time here, let's enjoy ourselves.

Brad: Absolutely. What kind of things have you done to stimulate fun and celebration?

John: Some of it is conscious and some of it is just you just letting yourself be you, right? I think one of the things that works terrific, is food. If you feed them, they will come! We do pancake breakfasts on a regular basis. We do, two or three times a year, barbecues and burgers. Find reasons to do that. Get our managers behind the grill. We also get terrific cooperation from our Unions to help buy the supplies and cook the food. They too see the value in bringing employees together, just to eat and chat.

We change recognition programs, try keeping them nice and simple and informal. You got to get out and see people and have a laugh with them. You got to go and reward people.

You got to go and reward people.

One of the things that was stunning to me - within about two months of being here, I suggested to a small group of employees who just finished a project, I said, "Hey, how about I buy you lunch, or how about we go across the street after work and have a beer and some appetizers, to say thank you?" You’d have thought I was suggesting we run naked through the streets. "Oh God John. No, you can't thank us, that'll make everybody else feel bad that we've been singled out." Get over it people. Right? It's like, let's never reward anybody because everybody else is going to feel bad. I’m not prepared to operate like that.

You do it by conscious deed and then you just do it by being out there and laughing at yourself. My natural style is to laugh, and laugh at myself, and use colorful language, and try and find the humor in things. Hopefully it cascades. I hire people like that. I don't like uptight people.

I hire people like that. I don't like uptight people.

Brad: Exactly. On the recognition side, it sounds like making it spontaneous and specific is key, right?

John: Yeah, exactly. If you're going to wait for a performance appraisal to say thank you, the annual performance appraisal's a bit late.

We've initiated some little things to help our managers understand how important it is to do that immediate, specific response. Not pat on the back, "Good job," but, "Really loved the way you handled that customer. I loved that question you asked about, 'Is there anything else I can do while you are here?'”.

My department heads now do a lot of stuff where we will take people for lunch or drinks after work. We have a pub right across the street from us, so we'll just go across the street after work and say thank you. You're just buying a couple of rounds, we buy that ourselves, and then some appetizers or something. It just sets the right tone, right? We aren't going out and getting hammered, we're just going across the street and we just want to say thank you in a more relaxed environment. We talk about their kids, or vacation plans or house renovations . . . forty-five minutes later everybody goes their separate ways, but people feel that they've been appreciated.

Brad: That's very true.

John: My daughter's an artist, Brad, so I had her paint these cards for me. Basically just white cardstock that I can write a few comments inside. We have cards that are individual rowers, and then we have cards that are teams of rowing people. Now we zip out these cards that say, "Thank you for a great job." Obviously, it's continuing our rowing, coasting, drilling analogy. We’re finding people appreciate simple things like that as well.

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 2.10.55 PM Simple appreciation cards designed by John’s daughter

Brad: Yes, it's a nice little token.

John: Exactly.

Brad: That sums things up nicely John. Thanks for your help.

John: Thanks for your time.

About Leadership Conversations:

Our day job at Jostle is creating a platform that helps leaders engage employees, drive culture and catalyze collaboration. Through this Leadership Conversations series we seek out top people-oriented leaders to explore these topics with us. If you know someone we should include in this series, please contact us at leaders@jostle.me

John Leeburn

John Leeburn is the Chief Administrative Officer for Port Coquitlam. In his twenty-five years working in municipal government in Metro Vancouver, John has held steadily more senior positions, and has proven his ability to lead municipal departments, work closely with Council and other department heads, build trusting relationships, and engage workforces.

John is one of the few CAO’s in the province of British Columbia, Canada to start his career in human resources. When not at work he can be found wandering around Port Coquitlam with his golden retriever, Echo.

Brad Palmer

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