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Increase Your Team’s Productivity – It’s FRE(E)

By on October 14, 2008 – 5:15 pm  13 Comments

Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin are the authors of the book Profit From the Positive. Articles written jointly by Margaret and Senia are here.

Margaret Greenberg, MAPP '06, founded The Greenberg Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, in 1997. Margaret specializes in coaching executives and their teams using a strengths-based approach. Full bio. Her solo articles are here.

Senia Maymin, MAPP '06 is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio. Her solo articles are here, and her articles with Kathryn Britton are here.

Climbing a Pile of Files

Climbing a Pile of Files

What would it mean for your business if you could improve productivity by 30%? Would it impact your speed to market? Would it reduce your costs? Would it increase your sales? Would it improve your ability to serve customers? You decide. Now imagine you could achieve these productivity gains without ever having to spend a dime. Also imagine that this productivity improvement is so simple that virtually every manager could implement it starting today – no costly training or certification programs required. Would you try it? Of course you would – you’d be crazy not to.

So what is it? It’s “FRE(E) – the Frequent Recognition & Encouragement” effect.©  And, of course, it’s free.  FRE(E) is a concept we’ve developed for our coaching and consulting practices.

In a research study Margaret Greenberg conducted in 2006 with a fellow University of Pennsylvania colleague and PPND author, Dana Arakawa, Margaret and Dana found that managers who provided frequent recognition and encouragement saw an increase in productivity of 31%. Employees were asked a series of statements such as “My project manager recognizes my accomplishments regularly” and follow-up questions such as “How frequently and in what ways does your project manager offer encouragement and/or recognize accomplishments?”  Their answers to these and other questions were then compared to the results of the projects they worked on. Did these projects meet or exceed budget, schedule and quality standards?

What Margaret and Dana found was managers who provided FRE(E) had significantly higher project performance. Specifically, managers who scored in the top FRE(E) quartile achieved an average project performance score of 17.75 (out of a 20-point scale), while those managers who scored in the bottom FRE(E) quartile achieved only an average project performance score of 11.55.  (See the Gallup  Management Journal coverage of this study here and here, or download the full study here).

Why Doesn’t Everyone Use FRE(E)?

So why don’t more managers tap into this simple, yet powerful way to improve productivity? First, Lean Six Sigma and other process-related productivity tools have taught us that to improve productivity we must analyze, measure, and evaluate the work. We come to believe that nothing is simple. While we are certainly advocates of improving work processes, we also know that you can improve productivity by focusing on the worker by giving FRE(E).

In our coaching and consulting practices we have discovered four other reasons managers choose not to offer FRE(E) – all of which center around personal biases:

  • “I’m too busy.” Some managers get so caught up in the day-to-day work that they believe they don’t have time to say “thank you”.
  • “That’s what they get paid to do.” Some managers believe that the paychecks employees receive are enough to keep them engaged and motivated to perform what’s expected.
  • “It’s too early to celebrate – we haven’t completely implemented this yet.” Some managers believe they must wait until the end of a project before they can provide recognition because who knows what could go wrong.
  • “I don’t like or need encouragement to do my job.” Finally, some managers say they personally don’t like to receive recognition and encouragement from their managers and then assume their employees feel the same.

In the same 2006 research study, Margaret and Dana asked employees to rate the statement “My Project Manager regularly provides encouragement to me.” Out of the 79 employees who responded to that statement, only 16% “agreed a lot” while another 24% “agreed a little.” Sadly, that’s less than half of the employees surveyed!

How Do I Recognize FRE(E)?

   Feeling FRE

What does FRE(E) look like? Just like goals, frequent recognition and encouragement needs to be specific. In addition, FRE(E) needs to be genuine. Just saying “nice job” is not enough and can even be perceived as insincere (as Doug Turner describes). In fact, that’s why FRE(E) often gets short shrift because the employee is left feeling like his manager really doesn’t know what it took to get the job done.  In the business world we rarely use the term “praise” when we talk about providing positive feedback to employees. However, there are findings from positive psychology research on praise that business leaders need to know. Research studies by Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford University have found that process praise is more effective than person praise (for more detail about process praise, see these past PPND articles by Nicholas Hall, Kathryn Britton, Bridget Grenville-Cleave, and Gloria Park).

Be specific. Acknowledge exactly what your employee did – the process –  to make that customer happy or meet that deadline. And be genuine: that means providing eye contact if you are giving the feedback in person. But what if your employee is working remotely? How do you convey your sincerity over the phone? Stop multi-tasking. Stop whatever else you’re doing (yes, turn away from your computer screen) and focus exclusively on the person at the other end of your phone. When you’re really present, your sincerity will come right through those phone lines.

Image:  paper climb, encouragement, celebrating



  • Jeff says:

    When I give praise, I find that certain individuals seem to prosper under more or less praise over time. A given person might like a bunch of praise for a job well done. A second individual may only want a “good job for doing X”. People construe meaning uniquely. One of the most bizarre reactions to recognition/praise I’ve seen is “what do you mean by that?!?” I’ve actually had someone react with paranoia when praised!

    Then there is the interesting phenomenon of what a manager or leader thinks is reinforcing (increases behavior) actually punishes (supresses) behavior. If you give a mouse a cookie, he’d better not be allergic to chocolate chips.

    The hardest part of approaching praise is how to ensure the message you intend is the message received. Which is what will keep recognizing achievement and effort endlessly interesting.

  • waynej says:

    I agree with the genuine – it has to be genuine for the person giving it. I suspect that good managers enjoy giving feedback – therefore the positive emotion the manager experiences runs off on the person (contagion)

    Thanx – good resources which I will use in a resilient leadesrhip course that I’m running

  • Senia Maymin says:

    Jeff and Wayne –

    What interesting points! I took each of your comments as being about the reinforcement cycle:

    Step 1) manager gives praise to a team member (positive emotion to the manager – Wayne’s point)
    Step 2) manager observes how team member takes the praise (ensuring the message given is the one received – Jeff’s point)
    Step 3) manager praises next time even more effectively – even more targeted toward the team member: genuine, specific, process-based.

    I think both of you are right – it’s not about doing FRE(E) and then not following up. It is about doing FRE(E) and then observing how the positive emotions hit you and observing how the message resonates with your team member.


  • waynej says:

    Not quite what I meant – the emotional (non cognitive message) is more important. If you don’t enjoy doing it then there will be no contagion. Messages without emotion aren’t as effective.

    We have all had managers who have been to leadership school and learnt about positive feedback – and gave it without the emotion – seems a little empty.

  • waynej says:

    You could make it FREE – just add an “E” for engaged. The manager has to be genuinely engaged. Sort of fits with one of the pillars of PP

  • Margaret says:

    Thank you Wayne & Jeff for your thoughtful comments. They remind me of one of Tom Rath’s 34 Strengths in StrengthsFinder 2.0 : “individualization”. People strong in the individualization theme are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person. When it comes to giving FRE a manager who has cultivated this “individualization” theme will do so with genuine emotion that truly resonates with the individual.
    P.S. – love the extra “e” Wayne!

  • John Styffe says:

    I enjoyed your article and am glad people are talking about encouragement. I find that encouragement is missing in our world today. I find that many children grow up to be unhappy adults who are unable to give encouragement/praise. This is because their parents were unable to give them encouragement. People who have self confidence and feel good can give encouragement easily because they are not threaten by anyone. Those who have low self esteem and do not feel well can not give encouragement because to them this means giving our power to those who they give the encouragement to. People with low self esteem tend to control and put down so that they can raise themselves above the others. So those who do give praise/encouragement that is not genuine do so because they can not. First a person needs to work on their self confidence before they can give of themselves.
    The best place to start is by encouraging the children so that they can grow into leaders who can give encouragement. John

  • Dan Bowling says:

    Margaret and Senia

    Very good and thought provoking. Can’t wait to see the book. I was particularly interested in your reference to 6 Sigma. Near the end of my corporate HR career I saw more and more emphasis on this and similar tools expanded to to the domain of “human capital management.” But as we have dicussed before HUMANS AREN’T CAPITAL! A drill press doesn’t need praise, but a person does. Your work is very important.


  • Your research confirms my findings. My research establishes a zone within which positivity/negativity ratios are optimum (see Losada Zone in Wikipedia). When P/N ratios are kept in this zone, the productivity gains occur within a range with a minimum of 20% to a maximum of 50%. These findings encompass a wide spectrum of teams from large global companies such as BHP Billiton (48.3% gain in productivity) down to e-forums used by virtual educational outlets where ratios within the Losada zone produced performance gains of 25.2%

  • Senia Maymin says:

    John S., Dan, and Marcial –

    Thank you immensely for your thoughts! It is especially gratifying for us to hear your thoughts while this book is in progress. It helps us understand what resonates, and helps us shape future work.

    John, completely agree with you in teaching children about encouragement – both about children receiving encouragement and also about giving encouragement to other kids.

    Dan, thank you. Margaret and I both love that phrase of yours – “Humans are not capital!” We are very much looking forward to incorporating your thoughts into our upcoming articles.

    Marcial, Margaret and I – and I would easily venture to say, all the MAPP authors on this site – are huge fans of yours and your research. One of the clearest examples of positive psychology that we can site to friends and colleagues after the MAPP program is the immediately applicable result of the Losada Ratio. In fact, in a section of our book that we have not yet posted, we give a detailed explanation of the huge benefits of the ratio and staying within the zone. Thank you for discovering and coining this concept that is extremely tangible!

    Our best,

  • melanie says:

    Margaret and Senia,

    I am sending this article to my husband who runs an architecture office. We often discuss our opinions on the importance of verbal praise and here you are giving me current research to share that shows clearly why and how. Excellent job putting this together. The information is so important AND it’s Fre(e)! We all love free.
    Sincerely, Melanie

  • Senia Maymin says:

    Melanie – thanks so much for the comment! Exactly! That’s our favorite part of writing together: that the research-based results really drive us forward. It’s the research that makes us both really excited about the effectiveness of these tools that business leaders can use. Tools are nice, and when they’ve been researched (like kicking the tires), there’s just so much more oomph to it.

  • Barry Elias says:

    October 15, 2008

    Dear Mr. Alloro;

    The forwarded email below from Positive Psychology News Daily (dated today, October 15, 2008) reinforces my conversation with you two days ago following the Happiness Meetup session.

    You may recall my focus on how successful managers “empower” their employees. They observe the value added and take quality time to recognize and compliment using quantifiable parameters, which fosters motivation.

    [Over the long term, this builds trust, purpose, and value alignment, thereby enhancing individual and organizational productivity.]

    Thanks again for your company and conversation Monday evening (October 13, 2008).

    Speak with you soon.

    Barry Elias

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