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Need To Inspire Your Employees? Try This (and it's Free)

Thursday, 16 Jul 2009 | 11:42 AM ET
Stressed out man
Stressed out man

Now more than ever, employees are aching for some cheerful aspects of their working lives to reveal themselves.

After (multiple?) rounds of layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts and/or benefit shrinkage -- with gloomy economic news reports constantly whispering in the background -- it's hard to feel like laboring for 8-plus hours a day is anything but a struggle for survival.

So, as a representative of upper management, why not dole out some motivation?

For one executive's take, check out this past Saturday's New York Times, which offered a profile of Yum Brands CEO David C. Novak. His platform is quite basic, and it really shouldn't be revolutionary. He said: "What a great leader does…is understand what kind of talent you have and then…leverage [it] so that people can achieve what they never thought they were capable of. The only way you can do that is to care about the people who work for you… You show you care by really taking an active interest…and you care enough to give them direct feedback. People are starved for direct feedback." (Also, it surprises him that "people put the CEO on such a high pedestal. You get more credit than you deserve for being friendly and approachable.")

Novak's interview was refreshing because of all the things it didn't do.

It didn't play into the au currant "all CEOs are baaaad" bleat of the media sheep. Unlike many chief executives this year who have spoken only as necessary (and often only to shareholders or with legal counsel present), he spoke without any official corporate "spin," and quite candidly. And he didn't restrict the discussion to a recession-era timeframe -- Novak's advice is good in all sorts of economic weather.

Chief executives are often loath to 1) make themselves seem accessible and 2) make their employees know that they're appreciated. For some top performers, appearing human -- and occasionally fallible -- requires a supreme effort. But singling out a worker for recognition, or apologizing for a (small!) mistake made at an employee's expense, can only strengthen the corporate network. It will serve as a tiny reinforcement, whether it's a small monetary award, a confidence or a smile, a welcoming acknowledgment that he's a vital part of the team. Perhaps -- though this isn't the main goal, of course -- it will compel him or her to make even more of an effort. (Even when that effort already represents more than his or her "normal" share due to company-wide cost-cutting initiatives.) And if both parties are still employed when business turns around, that one small act will still yield benefits.

So fling some free "food" to the compliment-starved masses. It's always been easy -- but it has rarely been as crucial as it is today.

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Todd Obolsky has covered a wide range of industries for Vault’s print and online company profiles (including consumer products, government, non-profit, retail, advertising, internet, energy and publishing) and manages Vault’s Layoff Tracker. He has also written for Penguin Group’s Rough Guides and DK travel series. He holds a BS in Mathematics from Bucknell University and an MBA (with a market research concentration) from City University of New York’s Baruch College.

Questions? Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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