Traditional employee motivation and recognition programmes fail because companies and managers do not understand the basics of motivation.

Humans crave genuine appreciation and recognition. Since people are all connected to each other, they would immediately sense insincerity.

Keys to critical connections

* Prevention

Prevention is cure. Heartfelt appreciation for good work — especially when a “thank you” is spontaneous — is extraordinarily effective. Studies show that people who give a sincere compliment also boost their own self-esteem.

* Constructive coaching

Many clients say one of their biggest challenges is to minimise employees’ feelings of rejection during performance reviews. This prompted my team to add a special field test while conducting the National Happiness at Work Studies.

After completing the interviews with over 650 employees and managers in 21 diverse organisations in the United States, we returned to field-test what worked.

Let me share a proven strategy:

* Build a positive feedback loop

We began with core groups of employees. Humour was an essential tool, whether we used “laughter yoga” or a technique like the one described below.

As employees entered the training room, they randomly drew an item from a large bucket. Whether the object was a hat, costume or a work tool, it was labelled with the name of the job it represented.

Employees took turns — often interrupted by laughter — explaining what they would find most enjoyable and most annoying about someone else’s job.

A survey conducted the following week determined that the exercise had created three important changes.

A new understanding had made employees more compassionate regarding individuals they had previously disliked.

They were also more aware of other workers’ strengths and challenges. Employees who had previously felt misunderstood and isolated reported that they felt more connected to other workers.

This was only a small piece of a dynamic, systematic training programme to enhance employee motivation and decrease employee retention problems.

The employee motivation surveys conducted proved that dramatic progress happened when we designed and asked “empowering questions” that made the process fun as well as meaningful.

Alienation and anger at work

What’s bad for the bee is bad for the hive. The current epidemic of workplace negativity is evidence that too many workers feel devalued or alienated.

Anger and anxiety are symptoms of unmet needs, including a hunger for authentic relationships. Let’s face it: Everybody wants to feel like they are essential members of a reference group.

Millennia ago, as the human brain evolved, its chemical structure guaranteed survival of the species by programming humans to crave meaningful connections with other humans. Humans are also hardwired to feel anxious when they are rejected or isolated.

In spite of the innate human desire to bond with others, it is difficult for many individuals to maintain a secure place within a familiar social group in today’s hurried, transient world. The attention needed by friends and loved ones is constantly drained by competing pressures, such as mandatory overtime, shift work, and geographic mobility.

Connections cure

In the National Happiness at Work Studies, employees who felt valued by other people made comments such as: “Work is a safe place. There’s a purpose for the work I do, so my life has more meaning. I don’t have to prod myself to go to work. How do I motivate myself? When an assignment spotlights my talents, there’s no ‘have-to’.”

Human relationships rule every facet of people's lives. My team constantly demonstrates real-life examples of how other companies and employees across the world have gained great benefits from healthy connections.

What works?

Here are some of our guidelines:

* Structure constructive coaching and positive feedback programmes that create intrinsic employee motivation;

* Establish internal job exchange programmes that feed job satisfaction;

* Initiate formal company programmes in which chief executive officers and employees give back to the community (according to research, this increases employee productivity and loyalty);

* Use play and humour as connectors;

* Initiate peer mentoring programmes;

* Ensure confidential, timely behavioural health services;

* Value the truth and seek open communication, even when the content will provoke anxiety. Ensure that employees can speak their minds without fear of negative consequences;

* Use humour and the sharing of positive feelings to facilitate employee bonding; and

* Train with the brain in mind. Design professional development programmes that compensate for the brain’s natural tendency to allow emotions to trample logic.