Can't afford to give raises? Try giving compliments!

When I look back on the jobs that I've had, I'm struck by the things that made me stay or leave. For example, as a teacher, I accepted a low salary, odd hours, and the fact that my work life and my home life were never totally separate. In fact, I didn't just accept this job; I loved it. Ironically, part of the reason was the low pay. Basically, I felt like my job was a vocation, almost a religious calling. Like a Jedi master, I was passing my superior knowledge on to the next generation. I wasn't doing this for material gain or prestige, but rather for the warm, fuzzy feeling that I got at night. I felt like Obi-Wan.

To be honest, though, another part of my job appreciation came from the fact that my students and employers were very complimentary about my work performance. My students "rewarded" me with high evaluations and effusive compliments on the student-run teacher review site, while my employers rewarded me with the occasional award. In years when my employers failed to acknowledge my good work, my job satisfaction dropped and I began to ask if I was making enough money to justify my dedication.Recently, a team of Japanese researchers discovered that compliments and cash rewards both activate the same brain center. In both cases, the stimulus (either money or a compliment) led to increased brain activity and a sense of pleasure. While the researchers tied this to an estimation of the importance of social status, I'd argue that, even in the absence of the social status phenomenon, compliments make workers feel better and more valued. At least, that's the way that it always worked for me.

So, the next time you find yourself staring down the barrel of a budget shortfall, you might want to reconsider the prizes with which you reward your employees. While money is all well and good, many employees won't go through the whole "are they paying me what I'm worth?" self-analysis if part of their payment takes the form of genuine appreciation!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He still goes back to the student website from time to time, just for an ego boost.
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