External validation, where an employee’s friends or family outside the company remark on the prestige associated with job and the company.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Levy, the CEO of WorkProud. For over 20 years Michael Levy has been dedicated to the growth and development of the WHAPPS.com (web hosted applications) platform and its various services, including but not limited to: www.Online-Rewards.com, www.WorkProud.com, and www.Catalogapi.com.
His vision for providing customized/gamified reward programs for corporate clients has helped propel this boot-strapped company to 14 consecutive years on the Inc. 5000 fastest growing companies list.
Michael Levy and his partners — John Knodel and Marcus Slagel — along with their team of over 70 employees, have built significant client programs across a vast array of industries and applications. These include: Blue Cross Blue Shield, Nielsen, VSP, Macys, Yum! Brands, Federal Reserve, Fort Drum, Reliant Energy, TIAA, WebMD, Onlife Health, North Texas Tollway Authority and many others.
Michael Levy holds a B.Comm from the University of New South Wales. He currently resides in Richardson, TX, where he’s an active contributor to his local community and Synagogue. He’s a proud father of three and a supporter of a number of local and international charities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The inception of Online Rewards/WorkProud as a career path for me was spawned by a fortunate stroke of serendipity. Over 20 years ago, I found myself at a certain restaurant in Dallas with my mentor (and spouse) Dianna Levy. I asked her why we selected this particular restaurant and her response was, “Because they have airline miles”. At that stage — as a starving entrepreneur — airline miles were the only way Dianna and I would be able to visit our families back in Australia.
Consequently, I thought to myself: “We choose this restaurant almost entirely because of a points promotion! Funny what people will do for points! Perhaps we should build a company that creates points programs.” The rest, as they say, is history.
What makes the story even funnier, is that during the course of that dinner conversation it was suggested that I visit Cincinnati to meet the younger brother of one of the diners. As luck would have it, that introduction began the connection between our two major locations — Dallas and Cincinnati — and has formed the foundation of a 20-year business relationship.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’ve led our company in designing employee experiences that align with companies’ cultural objectives. I’ve worked on helping them become key enablers for building employee engagement and high-performing teams. A real ‘a-ha’ moment occurred about a decade ago when we realized monetary rewards aren’t everything — they can be a barrier to what people really need and want in the workplace.
This realization happened as we were helping a large retail client with hundreds of thousands of employees. They had a monetary reward system for recognizing years of service and achievements. It was an impressive financial commitment by the company with so many associates. There came a time when the monetary awards were too big an obligation for the retailer to continue providing.
We helped them create a non-monetary program focused on telling stories about the great things their employees were doing; we were all taking a leap of faith that it would work.
Indeed, it did. At one point, we saw employees posting over 20,000 recognitions per month. We learned that employees like receiving recognition and that managers are very comfortable giving it. This realization has given us the trajectory to where we find ourselves: Yes, monetary recognition has a role, but there’s also a significant role for non-monetary recognition, appreciation, and feedback.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we’ve just completed the WorkProud® Study “How Pride Drives Business Value for Organizations;” we discovered there’s no statistically significant difference in employee pride between those working from home and those located on-site.
The data show that proud employees are the result of a culture of consistent recognition. And that culture, in turn, produces satisfied customers and shareholders. The research highlights the importance of new approaches for helping employees feel proud of their work and their companies. We also learned that merely sitting together in a shared space isn’t a guarantee of workplace pride; in fact, pride can be inspired even among employees who are remote or have flexible arrangements.
This information will be helpful for businesses seeking to make strategic decisions about the kind of workplace cultures they wish to build. The full report and further details are available at www.workproud.com.
OK, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the U.S. workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
The high level of unhappiness in the US workforce is related to an understanding of the term itself. It’s important to note that there are two types of happiness; hedonic and eudaemonic.
On the one hand, hedonic happiness is the kind of feeling one gets when you might say, “I feel great today,” or the thrill of a first date or finishing a marathon. It might be asking too much of the workplace to provide that particular form of happiness on a regular basis.
On the other hand, eudaemonic happiness is more closely related to a sense of purpose and feelings such as pride. This type of happiness type makes people produce business profitability. Our recent WorkProud® Study revealed that elements such as pride, which is related to eudaemonic happiness, are essential levers in managing and predicting overall employee performance.
When companies build cultures that focus on and encourage eudaemonic happiness, research shows an increase in employee engagement, pride, and all the business benefits that come from a happy workforce. Indeed, it is only when employers recognize employees, inspire workplace pride, and encourage the right type of eudaemonic happiness, that you end up with the well-known saying, “happy employees create happy customers.” Employees must learn to focus on building cultures where eudaemonic happiness can thrive.
Can you share five things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
Let’s start with four, based on findings from The WorkProud Study, which revealed the elements of pride in one’s work and company. These are the things that strongly influence human capital outcomes such as culture, employee satisfaction, advocacy, retention and business profitability. The four driving factors affecting individual and company pride are:
- Culture, where employees feel aligned with a company’s values and believe their leaders care about them
- Intrinsic drive, where one feels good about their work and wants to make a difference
- External validation, where an employee’s friends or family outside the company remark on the prestige associated with job and the company.
- Recognition, where employees feel appreciated and know their contributions are supporting the company’s business goals.
- The fifth one I would add is that leaders ought to embrace bringing in experts who specialize in building workplace pride, which has been shown to be a solid launchpad for a successful workplace culture.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture.” What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the U.S. workforce’s work culture?
We can encourage and emphasize the value of work culture; we have a responsibility to create workplaces where people want to come and give their best, and should be inspired to give their best, because we believe inherently people want to work hard, do well, and be appreciated for their work and contributions.
Many of us had this experience in elementary school when the teacher gave us gold stars. Somewhere along the way, we lost the idea that recognition was an important driver of business outcomes in the workplace.
Leaders should recognize that they have a responsibility not just to shareholders but also to their own employees to seize a responsibility to create places where people want to give their best and can grow, develop, and succeed. It’s to the company’s benefit that those individuals make progress. Individuals benefit when they see themselves as having a capacity to grow, develop and evolve; we want workplace cultures where that’s encouraged. Part of that encouragement is a feedback loop that says, “You’re doing good. I see you working hard and trying hard. We have a positive energy here at this business.”
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
There’s a saying that you can only attract bees with honey. You use positive energy, feedback, and recognition when leading and managing. My management style is to manage by recognition. This is easier said than done because so much about leadership involves creating results through other people. In that process, one has to be careful not to focus exclusively on fixing what’s wrong. Instead, there must be a balance between fixing and providing positive recognition and feedback.
If you don’t provide that positive recognition, all you’re doing is jamming up the works because the person you’re trying to teach and show how to do something better will react through the emotion of defensiveness. They’ll be “flight or fighting,” and they’ll leave your company. Very few people are propelled forward by being hit on the head all the time; it simply doesn’t work.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I was in a human resources conference and a gentleman gets up on stage and says, “I’m Dr. Bob Nelson. I’m the guru of thank you.” And I chuckled to myself and thought, “this is corny.”
But then he spoke about the power and importance of recognition and the need to take it seriously. And he had a doctorate in it and had written books about it. At that moment it became clear to me that non-monetary recognition truly matters.
Dr. Bob helped me realize that far too many people say they do recognition, but in reality they’re just ticking the proverbial ‘box’. What we’ve learned is that companies must actively engage in change management to build cultures where people are legitimately being acknowledged.
That’s what we’re talking about when we refer to happy employees. Not just hedonically happy employees, it’s about employees who are proud of their work and proud of their company.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote might be: “we are what we repeatedly do.”
This is a saying that really brings any kind of organizational development effort home. If you don’t practice and repeat things, you don’t get better at them. The idea is to first discover the right things to do that will create a culture of recognition and then do it over and over. Provide the right digital infrastructure and communication tools to make sure people can repeat the things daily that produce the culture you want. That’s how you get to maximum productivity through your workforce.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We must recognize that an employee’s state of mind is a dimension and responsibility for companies that want to create a great place to work. How are people thinking about the work that they do? How are they thinking about the company they work for? We will make employees go home happier and treat their spouses, their children, and themselves in a better way if their state of mind when they leave the office is positive. We must take responsibility as leaders to build an inspired workplace culture. That’s the movement I want to inspire.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!