Melissa Miller of Gratitude Investors: “Learn what your employee’s goals are”

Show workers how their actions tie in to the team’s goals, as well as their own. Feedback doesn’t feel critical when presented as a coaching tool to achieve goals. Get specific about your employee’s impact on the company. It’s important to use detailed examples of how their attitude, skills, and actions positively impact your organization. […]

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Show workers how their actions tie in to the team’s goals, as well as their own. Feedback doesn’t feel critical when presented as a coaching tool to achieve goals. Get specific about your employee’s impact on the company. It’s important to use detailed examples of how their attitude, skills, and actions positively impact your organization. Also, be transparent with progress toward goals so workers can see momentum. Focus your conversation on the end goals, or objectives, workers are pursuing — not just the tasks or key performance indicators surrounding the goal.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Miller.

Melissa Miller is the owner of Gratitude Investors, a company focused on increasing employee retention, engagement, and performance for individuals and companies through the implementation of gratitude and appreciation programs. Melissa’s educational background makes her uniquely qualified to work with businesses looking to take their recognition programs to the next level. With B.A. degrees in Economics and Psychology from Centre College, Melissa believes investing in employees creates the largest returns.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I really enjoy people. I love meeting new people and forming a connection. I’ve made friends in the shoe department while shopping. The team at my favorite Atlanta hotel and I are on a first-name basis. I am fun to sit next to on a plane (however, if you fall in the camp of immediately putting your earbuds in, I’ll give you space). It boils down to I am interested in people’s life stories. A few years ago, two of my aunts and I created The 180° Letters, a letter-writing kit to make sharing stories and gratitude simple. I loved working in appreciation and was drawn to the business sector from my professional life and education. Because I love people and connection, helping companies foster happy, fulfilled individuals is my company’s mission.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Gratitude Investors implements employee appreciation programs based in gratitude. I think the power of gratitude surprises people who are stepping into it for the first time. Their stories of how gratitude is changing things in their lives are heartwarming, and you can often hear a sense of wonder in their voices. Almost like “I didn’t expect this, but…”. Gratitude and appreciation are catalysts for changing work cultures and how we show up in our professional lives.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When you are highly motivated, I learned that you can push out of your comfort zones and have great success. Fear of change will be there, but it is mixed with excitement as well. At the beginning of my career, I jokingly like to think I was similar to Olivia Pope, from Scandal, without the murder and intrigue. Essentially, I “handled” things. I took situations that called for creative solutions and made them happen. I found the hard-to-get items, pulled off the surprises, and made the impossible a reality. And although every day presented a challenge, I was comfortable there. When I started my business, it was intimidating to step into all the new roles I needed to master. I used gratitude to lessen my fears and forced myself to try new things. As an entrepreneur, I wear many different hats, and it falls on me to push out of my comfort zones to do jobs I’ve never done before. Building up the ability to take on a daunting situation, get creative, and handle it is essential. Great success never comes from comfort zones.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The devil is in the details. And my geography skills are abysmal. I have verified both of these statements to be true. One snowy winter, I was booking a private plane for a client to fly to islands south of Florida. I called the aviation company, gave the name of the destination town, and booked the flight. The day before takeoff, I was going over the itinerary and noticed a Mountain Time Zone reference. When I called the company to clarify the seemingly impossible fact that the Caribbean is actually in the Mountain Time Zone, they explained the plane was set to fly to South Dakota. There is apparently a shared name between a town in South Dakota and the islands. Who knew? I could not stop imagining the train wreck of my life if I hadn’t caught that mistake. I could envision this group of people deplaning in shorts, flip flops, and cover-ups into fifteen feet of snow. And the blowback that would happen from my error. Now when I get swept up in moving quickly, I try to remember to slow down and go back over the details.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Years ago, my best friend was in an extraordinarily stressful job and she was not feeling any sense of professional accomplishment to help buffer the emotional drain. Each day on the job looked like the previous one, and she did not see progress. So as soon as she opened her eyes on Sunday morning and knew the workweek was right around the corner, her entire day became one of dread. Workers, now more than ever, may have symptoms like this pointing to burnout. In 2020, 75% of workers surveyed by FlexJobs reported experiencing burnout. If you feel like a clock is ticking over your head on Sunday, you need to examine what is causing the stress. Is your work/life balance nonexistent? Can you speak with your manager to address concerns and see if there is room for adjustment? Are you delegating and outsourcing to move things off your plate? Does your employer provide the opportunities you need to achieve long-term goals and advancement? Find what work activities fuel you and work in your strengths to keep your energy levels up. Preventing burnout requires continuous check-ins with yourself.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Let’s start with what leadership is not. It’s not a title or a plaque on your desk. It’s not how big your salary is or how many people report to you. I think Brene Brown says it best, “A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” We’ve all likely had bosses who operated in a scarcity mindset — there’s never enough work hours, effort, or money in the bottom line. A leader rooted in scarcity creates shame around people falling short. That approach creates fear and competition within the ranks. But the leaders who guide with abundance and vulnerability — those are the special ones. These are leaders who take the time to develop their team and offer growth opportunities. They are clear and transparent with their colleagues. These leaders admit when they don’t have all the answers and encourage everyone to be their best without being fearful of appearing weak. Great leaders balance asking for input with making the final decision. Leadership can be found throughout all levels of your business in people who respect and value others.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Stress shows up physically for me by wiping out my appetite, so I try to avoid letting it go unchecked. I control the things that I can. I work out and meditate most mornings, and that calms me physically. In addition, I try to overprepare, anticipate all possible scenarios, and repeatedly practice so I feel ready mentally. Once I’ve addressed the physical and mental aspects of stress, I can be excited about the opportunity.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

Gratitude Investors teaches leaders and companies the value of authentic feedback in achieving the company’s mission. Feedback helps employees see how their daily work is connected to personal and organizational goals. You can use it to help direct career advancement paths. Leaders can also use communication to prevent team losses with timely feedback. Despite all the benefits of using feedback, 44% of leaders say it is stressful, and 37% of managers say they avoid providing it (Harvard Business Review). I’ve found that by building connections and relationships first, having conversations centered around feedback becomes easier. It feels less like an annual review and more like two people coming up with best practice solutions together.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

Remember the days of taking a road trip with just verbal directions? You’d get in the car and head out only with a vague idea of the best-suggested route. Run into an accident? If you were lucky, you had a paper map in the backseat and could spend time making adjustments. However, you had no idea how far the traffic was backed up or where to find gas stations on the way. Trying to run your team without using honest feedback is just like driving without GPS. There is a lack of direction, and it is hard to make adjustments in the fast-paced work environment we face. Feedback works similar to having navigation on your phone. It yields clear directions to reach your destination, alerts you to potential hazards, and reroutes you as your course changes. Direct feedback allows teams to pivot when the project changes. Influential leaders use detailed, authentic assessments to drive behavior on their team.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

1.Feedback should not feel like an annual review but more like a conversation. That discussion is easier when you communicate frequently and build rapport before it’s time to offer feedback. The relationship becomes even more important with remote workers because of the reduced chances for casual interaction. Be intentional and check in regularly to build a connection. Harvard Business Review found when managers have a conversation — any conversation — with employees, worker performance improves. It doesn’t matter what is actually discussed. Face-to-face time builds connection and trust. As communication between team members becomes more frequent, it will make feedback feel less like an assessment and more like a part of daily work.

2.Learn what your employee’s goals are. Meaningful, personalized work breeds company loyalty. Once you discover their “why,” use coaching and feedback to align personal motivations to company goals. Feedback should be used in career development conversations as well as team objective discussions. Start the meeting by going through a colleague’s strengths, what they love about work, and their intrinsic motivations. Now you will know how to use feedback to tap into what fuels them. If a correction is needed, refer to the company mission as the guideline for decision making.

3.Show workers how their actions tie in to the team’s goals, as well as their own. Feedback doesn’t feel critical when presented as a coaching tool to achieve goals. Get specific about your employee’s impact on the company. It’s important to use detailed examples of how their attitude, skills, and actions positively impact your organization. Also, be transparent with progress toward goals so workers can see momentum. Focus your conversation on the end goals, or objectives, workers are pursuing — not just the tasks or key performance indicators surrounding the goal.

4.Be mindful of your ratio of positive to negative comments. Research has shown that feedback should be given at a minimum of 5 to 1 positive to negative comments for optimal performance.

5.Think like a coach. Gallup reported only 23% of employees strongly agree that their manager provides meaningful feedback to them. Managers should behave more like coaches with operational check-ins happening on a weekly or biweekly basis. Employee developmental conversations should occur every 6 to 8 weeks. Just like a coach getting her team ready for March Madness, sometimes a loss helps the group refocus and discover what they can do better before they get to the championship. If you want innovative employees, there is no such thing as failure — only teachable moments.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Every time you provide feedback, be specific and authentic. That is the case whether you are having a conversation in person or through email. Start your email by showing appreciation for your employee. If you are paying attention to your colleagues, you will be able to find at least one thing they are doing well. Even if that is as simple as, “Thank you for showing up every day — I know I can count on you.” Find something positive. Make sure you balance your tone and message. Emphasize individual and team progress and how to move forward with specific action items. Keep your feedback related to project and company goals to avoid making it feel like a personal confrontation. Finally, nail down a follow-up time to answer questions and review action items to move forward.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

Imagine if you made a note to tell your son in the first quarter of next year what a great job he did cleaning his room this past weekend. Or if you scheduled a time once a year to tell your partner how you feel about her. My guess is those relationships would suffer from a lack of appreciation and connection. Yet, this is precisely how many leaders use feedback in the workplace. In contrast, a Workhuman survey showed 60% of people want positive feedback as events occur, and 61% want constructive feedback immediately. Feedback should be timely and specific. Depending on the situation, waiting a couple of days may be best for everyone to step back and take a breath, but don’t hold off longer than that. To keep it fresh in your mind, jot down notes of specifically what worked and didn’t work for the conversation. You can always have set times throughout the year to touch base, but feedback should be part of a continuous conversation.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

Statistics show people don’t leave companies — they leave bosses. Management and their leadership style play a huge role in company culture. Great bosses see more potential in us than we see in ourselves. Their goal is to help us learn to see it too. I have a friend who emphatically attributes her present-day success to her former boss and mentor. This manager showed her the ropes in every aspect of the business world, from handling six-course meals to dressing for the job she wanted. Her mentor paid the bill for a personal public speaking coach. One Saturday, when my friend was going to leave town for a football game, her boss reminded her there would be many games to go to in the years to come; this wasn’t the time to skip work now if she wanted to be successful. Those words kept her eyes on the goal and proved to be true. Great bosses connect with people’s personal lives. They coach up, set clear expectations and goals, reward progress, provide “face time,” and are safety in times of uncertainty.

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 spend one-third of our lives working. An outdated model of thinking is unprofessional to bring gratitude or compassion into the workplace. However, studies show appreciation and gratitude are vital to creating the very type of workplace environments people actually want to work in. One of our most fundamental needs as humans is to feel appreciated. Leaders and companies who understand this principle, and practice gratitude, create productive, engaged employees. I would love to see a corporate mentality where leaders implement this approach in all phases of work-life from the hiring process until retirement.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I’m grateful but not complacent.” When I first came across this quote, I thought what a great way to sum up appreciating the present moment and going after your dreams at the same time. I think too often, being grateful can be misconstrued as being so happy you couldn’t want for anything more. That’s unrealistic. Gratitude helps relieve fear and anxiety in your head. The more I use gratitude, it helps me become braver to tackle parts of my life that need improvement. Just because I am grateful for my life doesn’t mean I’ve settled or stopped striving. I am thankful every day for many amazing things, but I know even greater ones are coming. It’s why I took a chance and started my business.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We would love for you to stop by and learn more about our gratitude-based employee appreciation programs. Catch up on daily information regarding gratitude in the workplace on Facebook and Instagram at @Gratitudeinvestor or LinkedIn at You can also find daily inspiration on all things related to gratitude @180degreesgratitude on Instagram.

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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