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Want to let an employee know that you think they're doing a good job? Try washing their car in the parking lot during lunch.

OK, maybe that's not your style. Try taking them out to lunch with some co-workers. Or simply take a few minutes to write them a short thank-you note.

That kind of touchy-feely approach can go a long way toward keeping workers happy and motivated -- and that's a growing issue in these days of layoffs and corporate belt-tightening, says Bob Nelson, a California management training consultant who wrote a book called "1001 Ways to Reward Employees."

"Good management has always done this, but it's more important if all this other stuff is going on," Nelson says.

"We're worse at it. It's just not common practice today" to praise or reward workers, Nelson says. "People are their most important asset, but you'd never know it today."

Unfortunately, too many managers these days just don't get it. These hard-driving managers often are so focused with getting the job done that they run roughshod over the people they work with. They demand long hours, pinch every penny to boost the all-important bottom line and have no compunction about jettisoning loyal workers to save a few bucks.

"It seems like the only time people hear from managers is when they make a mistake," Nelson says. "It's hard to motivate employees when they only hear from their boss when they do something wrong."

The sad thing is, it doesn't take a whole lot to keep employees happy and make them feel appreciated. And, best of all, some of the most effective ways don't cost a lot of money. In fact, many don't cost a dime.

Nelson says a handwritten thank-you note or a simple, in-person thank you can do wonders by making workers feel that what they're doing is important -- and appreciated. "A lot of time, what grabs people is that you didn't have to do that," he says.

Nelson calls this the "softer side of management," and its basic premise is that a little praise can go a long way.
"Everybody up and down the line needs this," he says. "There's a difference between getting people to come to work and getting them to do their best work."

It's an approach that Nelson says is even more important at firms that are going through painful downsizing. In an era where insecurity hovers over almost every worker's head, Nelson says the employees who remain need to know they still play a key role at a company that's in upheaval.

But that only works if the managers are sincere. Otherwise, it will be painfully obvious to the employees that the moves by management to make workers feel better about their jobs is just an attempt to manipulate them, Nelson says.

Still, it isn't easy for some managers to show employees that they appreciate what they're doing.

Nelson says he knows one top executive who started carrying around five marbles in his left pants pocket to help remind him that his goal was to praise five workers each day. When he did, he'd take a marble out and move it to the right pocket. At first, the executive would go all day without moving any marbles. After a few days, two or three would change pockets. And after a couple of weeks, he didn't need any marbles to remind him, Nelson says.

The key is for managers to find a way to reward employees that makes them comfortable. "Find the ones that work for you and your people," he says. "Start giving people specific, timely feedback on the performance. If you do that, you're halfway there."

Of course, there are other reasons why managers may be reluctant to reward workers. They fear their praise will be used as ammunition against them when the time comes to talk about a pay raise. Or they fear a reward program will become institutionalized, with employees viewing the occasional gift certificate, free tickets or monetary reward as something they're entitled to, rather than a way to recognize unusually good work.

That's why Nelson doesn't like "employee of the month" programs. "Often, it becomes an endurance contest," he says. "If you work here long enough, you'll get it."

Instead, Nelson says the most effective reward programs are individualized by each manager, with the perks only handed out intermittently when someone does something really special.

"All performance starts with clear goals," he says. "As you reinforce desired performance, you will get more of it."

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