Fred Rogers delighted children for decades on television, but even as adults we can learn and be inspired by his legacy for better workplace leadership and building employee happiness.
Employee happiness is on our minds these days because International Day of Happiness is this Monday, March 20.
It’s also Mister Rogers Day — or “Sweater Day,” an effort to get people everywhere to wear Rogers’ trademark cardigan in honor of the beloved children’s entertainer and his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers would have turned 89 this March 20.
Generations of children grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1963 to 2001. Watch the show intro and see if that music (written by Rogers, by the way) brings back a wave of nostalgia.
“He spoke to children like grown-ups, and helped them tackle topics such as anger, trust, honesty, courage and sadness,” Jonathan Merritt wrote in a posthumous profile of Rogers in The Atlantic.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood pushed beyond surface-level entertainment and instilled children with a sense of joy, peace and kindness. Researchers who compared viewers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with viewers of Sesame Street even found that Fred’s fans developed a greater level of patience.”
Mister Rogers, Won’t You Be My Boss?
Rogers was also, unsurprisingly, a thoughtful boss.
Every summer, he rented out an amusement park near his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., for the children of his employees to enjoy.
Rogers’ “deep and simple lessons may have been packaged for children, but they are applicable at any age,” Maura Jutkis wrote for the Washington Post in 2012. He had a “magical effect on adults,” too. She quotes a 1998 Esquire profile of Mister Rogers:
“The moment Mister Rogers got out of the car, people wouldn’t stay away from him, they respected him so much … ‘Oh, Mister Rogers, thank you for my childhood.’ ‘Oh, Mister Rogers, you’re the father I never had.’ ‘Oh, Mister Rogers, would you please just hug me?'”
Many of the employees on his show stayed with him for decades, according to the New York Times.
At one point in the 1990s, he thought of retiring, “but he pressed on, partly because he felt responsible for the staff members who inhabited the real ‘Neighborhood,’ which had the simple warmth and loyal relationships of the make-believe version.”
He showed personal interest in his employees and fostered a meaningful workplace culture.
One employee of 33 years “recalled moments when her boss shared conversations about her ailing cat and then offered to join her when it was euthanized.”
Rogers and his team thought of themselves as sort of a church congregation with a “sense of being involved in something bigger,” William Barker, voice of the puppet Dr. William Duck Platypus, told the Times.
Building Employee Happiness, the Mister Rogers Way
Inspired by Fast Company’s “5 Marketing Lessons from Mr. Rogers” and others, here are five ways to model Rogers in workplace leadership to build employee happiness:
1. Focus on Relationships, Not Flashy Perks
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was decidedly low-tech and not flashy, yet Rogers managed to inspire a large, loyal following of young viewers. He did this by talking to his viewers personably, asking questions and building a “relationship” with each and every one.
Big, expensive employee benefits are nice, but a personal connection will always be more memorable in the long run. Ultimately, you’ll need to find a balance: recognize employee excellence thoughtfully and generously, but never forget to personally say “Thank You” or seize the opportunity to get to know an employee one-on-one. These small connections will stay with employees the longest and build lasting employee happiness.
2. Let Employees Know How Their Work Matters
Not all of us can work behind the scenes on a beloved children’s program, but that doesn’t mean the work your company does can’t be just as meaningful.
Rogers’ employees stayed with his show for decades because he put a high value on meaningful workplace culture. He did this by frequently communicating how and why the work mattered. And according to Harvard Business Review, meaningful work should be every CEO’s top priority.
3. Inspire, Don’t Rule
“There’s a world of difference between insisting on someone doing something and establishing an atmosphere in which that person can grow into wanting to do it.”
This quote from Rogers inspired Marc Galvagno, a former executive at the transportation company Air Van Lines, Inc.
In a 2005 Puget Sound Business Chronicle profile, Galvagno said he kept a Mister Rogers thought-of-the-day calendar on his desk and let Rogers’ words inspire his management style.
“This man had true perspective. He was so dang genuine,” Galvagno said.
4. Listen, and Be Responsive
There are countless stories of how responsive Rogers was to his viewers, often responding at length to fan mail and paying close attention to the concerns viewers might share. This has the same effect on six-year-olds as it does on 36-year-olds: people who feel heard and valued will put more effort into the relationship (and into the work).
5. Be Authentic
Rogers was a convincing public speaker, able to secure millions of dollars in funding for public television and children’s education. He did it, according to marketing expert Mitch Joel, through storytelling and authenticity.
Storytelling is one way to discover authenticity as a leader. By finding and telling the story of your company and the work you do, you’ll naturally become more authentic — and that’s a quality employees will immediately respond to.
“Storytelling is more than an essential set of tools to get things done: it’s a way for leaders — wherever they may sit — to embody the change they seek. … Storytelling helps us make sense of organizations,” according to Forbes’ “Why Leadership Storytelling Is Important.”
Next Week: Don’t Miss International Day of Happiness!
Monday, March 20 — in addition to Fred Rogers’ birthday — is International Day of Happiness! Renew your commitment to happier employees with a workplace celebration. We’ll be posting ideas and inspiration in the coming days.
Want to build a culture of workplace happiness every day of the year?
Download your FREE 2017 Day-to-Day Employee Recognition Calendar, your guide to building a successful workplace culture of positivity and gratitude.
“In life, one has a choice to take one of two paths: to wait for some special day — or to celebrate each special day.” – Rasheed Ogunlaru, coach and author
gThankYou’s 2017 Day-to-Day Employee Celebration Calendar gives you the tools and inspiration to build a culture of appreciation every day of the year. Download yours today, absolutely free.
Here’s to a happier employees and a happier workplace in 2017!
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