Amy Adams and the Power of Small Gestures

Oscar-nominated actress and America’s Sweetheart Amy Adams scored some good karma points last week when she traded her first-class seat with a US soldier who was flying coach on a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles. Adams, whose father was in the military, noticed the man in uniform at her gate and privately asked the airline staff to switch seats with him according to Jemele Hill, the ESPN2 anchor who tweeted about the incident from the airport. Adams has only made one public comment since the incident, when she told an Inside Edition reporter “I didn’t do it for attention for myself, I did it for attention for the troops,” completing the one-two combo of kindness and humility for the media KO.

Informal Approach

The attention centered on Adams this week isn’t surprising, but not just because it’s almost July 4th and the story involves a US Soldier. It also shows how everyone responds positively to spontaneous acts of goodwill. In fact, it’s one of the most potent tools a manager has for engaging staff. If leveraged properly, “informal” awards designed to be given out spontaneously can become important touchstones for employees, especially if they are derived from the existing work culture or have a special connection to the organization. Joe Sherren of The Guardian Canada examined this phenomenon and turned up some great examples:

“Golden Banana” Award at Hewlett-Packard
This infamous HP award was created when an engineer burst into the office of a senior executive to announce he’d found a solution to a major problem. The manager was excited, but also in the middle of lunch, so he hastily grabbed a banana from his desk and presented it to the employee as a reward, telling him “Job well done!” The employee then proudly displayed the banana to his coworkers. The company noticed and created the “Golden Banana” award, which is now used exclusively for informal recognition.

Walt Disney World’s “Spirit of FRED” Award
Who is Fred? He’s a Walt Disney World employee who went from an hourly to a salaried position, and realized he had no official means to informally recognize staff, so he made up an award based on what it took him to rise through the ranks. He named the “FRED” award after himself, which stood for Friendly, Resourceful, Enthusiastic, and Dependable. Today the award is highly coveted by Disney employees, and considered a good benchmark for cultural fit.

IBM Junior Employee Lunches
Sherren is a former IBM employee, and related his own award experience from his days there: “While working at IBM I knew a senior executive who asked his managers to submit every month the name of a staff member who made a significant contribution or displayed positive enthusiasm. He would then select a junior employee to treat to lunch. It was amazing what this small gesture did for the morale of that division.”

Stay Authentic

The defining trait of effective spontaneous recognition is that it is genuine. Without sincerity, giving an employee a banana as a reward can be taken as an insult. With sincerity and passion it becomes an important moment in that employee’s career, an authentic moment. It’s the little things in life that make a difference, and small gestures of goodwill can grow into wonderful things if you keep paying it forward, especially in the workplace.

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