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Shaun McKeogh, the author of Reasons 2 Reward, believes in the morale-boosting potential of positive reinforcement.
Shaun McKeogh, the author of Reasons 2 Reward, believes in the morale-boosting potential of positive reinforcement.

The power of praise in the workplace

An Abu Dhabi-based manager and author reveals why a happy workforce is a productive one.

Shaun McKeogh calls me two minutes after the scheduled start of our Thursday morning appointment. He is in the right place at the right time - the foyer of a hotel at the far end of the Formula One track on Yas Island - and I am not. He is worried I will be a no-show. McKeogh is the co-author of Reasons 2 Reward - Transform your Business by Rewarding your Team Members, a short book for business people seeking to get more out of their staff. Already I get the feeling I'm underperforming.

The book, a self-published affair issued via the cheerily named imprint Getting on Track, has recently gone on sale in one of the UAE's leading bookstore chains. An Australian expatriate, McKeogh moved to the Emirates a little over a year ago to take up a position as the training and development manager for one of the nation's theme parks. He asked me not to tell you which one in case it seems like he's using his professional position to drive book sales. Suffice to say his place of work has a big red roof and sits not very far from the foyer I eventually stroll into after that mildly scolding phone call.

The book, a tread through fairly regulation management and motivational techniques, uses a narrative format to follow the fortunes of Wally World, a fictional theme park. Formerly a swish, slick operation, as the book begins Wally World is a broken business where profits and visitor numbers have slipped and, crucially, the fun departed a long time ago. Enter Max Grimshaw, who was part of the park's junior management team in the good old days.

Grimshaw has been asked to rejoin the enterprise by the park's charismatic owner Mike Dawson, and is tasked with getting profits back on the rise. Far from returning to a hero's welcome, Grimshaw walks into an organisation full of self-absorbed managers - "He won't last the year," says one at the meeting convened to confirm his appointment - who resent being passed over for the post.

These same short-sighted senior staff are thoroughly disengaged from the generally good-natured teams they run. Unsurprisingly, the business is slowly grinding to a stop, like a rollercoaster halted by a system malfunction. Grimshaw's only ally in this otherwise hostile environment appears to be Donna Nelson, Wally World's human resources manager.

As it happens, Reasons 2 Reward's co-author is Ann-Maree O'Neill, a former HR manager at Sea World in Australia, where McKeogh used to work as culture and people-development manager. How much of the book charts the actual goings-on at one of the Gold Coast's leading attractions?

"When we wrote this we were very nervous," he admits, "because when we released it in Australia, the theme park we were with immediately said we'd written it about them. We hadn't, of course."

But surely Max is you and Donna is Ann-Maree?

"Certainly, we've put our own stories into all the characters," he says carefully.

Back at Wally World, Grimshaw encounters resistance to his ideas, then staff resignations and declining visitor figures, before turning the business around in a rousing final act. Ever the corporate warrior, Grimshaw warns against complacency in the book's closing passages. "The journey has only just begun," he informs his reinvigorated team at a now-regular staff meeting, "as we continue to transform Wally World."

Throughout, the story is punctuated by pithy, peppy messages designed to resonate with e-mail-obsessed managers who spend too much time with their inbox and not enough with their staff. "Know your team; praise your team!" says one, "The most effective way to recognise employees is in person - just say it!", reads another. The obvious moral of the story is that you end up reaping what you sow. Grimshaw coaches, praises and encourages his staff to better themselves and Wally World's results improve.

McKeogh claims that Reasons 2 Reward is relevant for any manager of any business and not just a customer-facing enterprise like, say, a theme park in Abu Dhabi or Australia. "The number-one reason why people choose to leave a business is because of their boss," he says, "and the number-one reason why people stay and commit is because they feel valued."

In McKeogh's telling it is hard to understand why he ever left Australia. "I used to share this beautiful office at Sea World with Ann-Maree. It was the best in the whole business. It looked out onto the waterway and every day we would see the most amazing sights - from pleasure boats filled with tourists, to dolphins splashing around in the afternoon.

"We sat there one day and looked at that view and said to each other, 'This is the best park in the world.'"

Even the best parks have problems, though. "There were situations where both staff and managers were getting upset and profits were going down," says McKeogh. "It became evident that this was because some senior staff were managing their people in the wrong way."

This moment of revelation led to the book and then to the Middle East. O'Neill, who still lives and works in Australia, and McKeogh plan to follow-up Reasons 2 Reward with a guide aimed at teachers and parents. For now though, the pair are content with marketing a range of products to support their tale of a theme-park turnaround. This merchandise includes the "Impact Pack - You Rock!" set of sticky notes and "Awesome Job!" praise pads.

Don't be fooled into thinking it's all good news in McKeogh's world, though. He is strident when pressed about the state of customer service in the country he now calls home.

"It is probably the worst I've ever seen," he says, before relating a not uncommon story of demotivated staff, system malfunction and customer meltdown at a retail outlet which he had the misfortune to visit recently. One imagines the praise pad remained unsullied on that expedition.

It is also clear that McKeogh has little time for the naysayers and dissenters who inhabit every business. I tell him he strikes me as a can-do person. He gives this some thought. "Yep," he says at last.

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