How do we celebrate with employees this year?

What if we gave employees a sense of connection and belonging for the holidays, asks Dawn-Marie Kerper of Ogilvy.

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As the holidays approach, many of us are trying to figure out how to best do things this year. But as I'm trying to figure out how to celebrate with my family, I'm also thinking about the best way to acknowledge the work-family that, frankly, I miss terribly and who are as much a factor in my well-being and happiness as anyone.

As an employee experience professional, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to engage people in meaningful experiences and how to help them through change. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I've also been thinking about how employers provide for the needs of their staff.

Our team has spent a lot of time talking about the bottom levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the physiological need for food, shelter, and rest and the needs for safety, health, financial and job security. After a focused effort to address these basic needs, most organizations are ready to concentrate on the next phase.

Moving to a higher level
The next layers in Maslow's hierarchy are the psychological; the need for belongingness, love, and esteem, and also the need for self-fulfillment. And I think these higher layers of needs may be the answer to my question of how to celebrate with my team this year.

I received a surprise note from a teammate recently. It read, in part, "Without you, I would not have been able to succeed in my role and feel supported. I know you have my back and that means the world to me."

I can easily say that these words of acknowledgment meant the world to me right back. I felt seen and appreciated by someone who matters to me. And, I feel like I've accomplished something as a leader if she feels this way, which is an enormous gift when most days right now, I feel like I'm just barely holding it together.

Take the time to acknowledge each person
However you celebrate this year, I encourage you to find ways to make your people feel as though they belong and their efforts matter. Acknowledging their individual contributions, making them feel that they are part of your world will make a positive difference for you and them.

You might end up feeling a bit like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life." But if you can't count on holiday classics at times like these, when can you?

Your efforts don't have to be extravagant or take weeks of effort. What if, instead of a gift exchange this year, you drew names for an acknowledgment exchange, where team members take the time to thank each other for their contributions?

What if, along with a warm scarf or a great bottle of wine, we also gave our colleagues a sense of connection and belonging and a much-needed boost from a community that respects and appreciates them?

Connections, not communications
I also got a great note of thanks recently from our global CEO. It was sent to all US employees, thanking us for our efforts throughout the pandemic and encouraging us to unplug and unwind over the Thanksgiving holiday.

This kind of effort has a necessary place in the communications plan. It's a signal from the top that taking a break is important and encouraged. But it is not the same as the individual connection I am suggesting we make. That kind of recognition only comes from colleagues and leaders who know you personally, who you trust and whose opinions matter to you.

Heed the hierarchy
A note of caution about Malsow's hierarchy of needs and getting real about your organization. You can't skip steps. There is no easy path to building strong relationships with employees.

It's like a game of Chutes and Ladders but with just chutes. Going up is difficult but you can easily slide down with an ill-conceived effort. And if your employees feel they aren't being taken care of by the company or by you as a leader acknowledging their higher-level needs won't work.

If they feel they're overdue for a raise or their employment is tenuous, if they feel you aren't keeping them safe during the pandemic — in other words, if the basic physiological and safety or security needs are not being met — then skipping Malsow's base levels could fail.

Your attempts to acknowledge their efforts may be met with mistrust, skepticism and even anger. The hierarchy is real. You need to work on those foundational levels before addressing their higher-level needs.

A gift for the giver
This approach has a built-in benefit for the giver as well as the receiver. Research shows that gratitude is good for you. According to Harvard Health Publishing, "Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships."

It's like one of those great sales where it's easy to pick up a few things for yourself while you shop for others. Only in this case, it is something meaningful for both of you.

Dawn-Marie Kerper is an executive consultant in Ogilvy's employee experience practice.

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