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3 Keys to Employee Performance from Disney

Thoughts on recognition, encouragement, and appreciation from Lee Cockerell.

If you’ve visited Walt Disney World in Florida then you’ve likely seen the impact Cast Members – Disney terminology for employees – have on creating the magic at “The Most Magical Place on Earth.” Disney is known for its customer service, and creating this magical customer service doesn’t always come easy to Cast Members. They oftentimes work in the hot and humid Orlando weather while interacting with Guests – Disney terminology for customers – who can be frustrated by the heat, crowds, and long wait times.

"You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world…but it requires people to make the dream a reality." Walt Disney

So how does Disney get its Cast Members to consistently go the extra mile for its Guests? And can this recipe for employee performance work for your organization? Lee Cockerell, retired Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World Resort and bestselling author, believes high employee performance comes from recognition, encouragement, and appreciation. In speaking with Cockerell, it became very apparent that these three keys to employee performance played a significant role in his success as a Disney executive, leading to increased retention of Cast Members and a commitment from them to go above and beyond to create “pixie dust” for Guests of Walt Disney World.


Disney has several programs in place that recognize Cast Members for a job well done. For example, the Walt Disney Legacy Award is one of the company’s most prestigious honors and is a way for Cast Members to nominate other Cast Members who embody the values of “dream, create, and inspire” (Fun fact: you can recognize Legacy Award winners by their blue name tags).

Disney has also created the #castcompliment social media recognition program that allows Guests to recognize Cast Members via Twitter. These tweets of recognition not only go on Twitter for the world to see, but they are also placed in the Cast Members’ formal record so that leadership can see the job well done. On a more personal level, if a Cast Member’s name was included in correspondence from Guests, Cockerell would make a copy of that letter and send it to the Cast Member along with a special pin he had designed. He also recognized Cast Members for a job well done by writing a short note in the weekly employee newspaper, the Main Street Diary, or even by making a simple phone call.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay
Source: Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Your organization might not look and feel like Walt Disney World. Nonetheless, Cockerell’s principle of recognizing employees is still of value. Recognize employees in your monthly internal newsletter, or have a little fun and create a trophy that rotates throughout the office and is given to a deserving employee on a monthly basis. This simple strategy of recognition could be the key to better employee performance. After all, research tells us that while “positive reinforcement is one of the most validated principles in management and psychology it is surprising how few managers use it on a regular basis.”


While recognition takes place after a job done well, encouragement is the catalyst that can lead to employees performing well. During his time at Disney, Cockerell would often remind Cast Members at all levels of just how important they were to the “show” – the product we as Guests see when we visit a Walt Disney World theme park or resort hotel. When encouraging Cast Members he was sure to reinforce that while Cast Members had different roles, every single role played an important part in the show. This often led to positive outcomes for Disney. As Cockerell noted, “It is a no-brainer that when people feel respected and valued for the talents and skills they bring to the team, they feel more motivated and inspired, which leads to commitment.”

Encourage your employees and coworkers. For example, help them recognize what strengths they bring to the table and how those can be utilized for success in the organization. Employees oftentimes are not aware of some of their own strengths that benefit their organization. And encourage those in the organization to share diverse perspectives by leading without imposing a sense of fear.


Employee appreciation is certainly not a new development. In fact, “Employee Appreciation Day” is observed on the first Friday of each March and has been showing up on our calendars for over 25 years. But that’s just one day each year. Employees need to know they’re appreciated more than just once per year. While the idea of appreciation ties in well with recognition and encouragement, it can be utilized on a daily basis in situations that might otherwise be deemed business as usual. Cockerell recalls, “People get so engaged in their work, in their projects, and in their own life that they often are preoccupied…and they walk right by someone, or they don't stop to chat a minute, or even worse, they only really greet the same people day in and day out and develop a bad habit of not giving the same attention and courtesies to everyone.” His philosophy as the executive in charge of Walt Disney World operations was that everybody mattered, and everybody needed to know that they mattered.

We don’t need to wait until the first Friday of every March to tell our employees and coworkers that we appreciate them. Perhaps you can send your salesperson on the front line a note telling them how thankful you are for their contributions to the organization. Or maybe verbalize to the administrative assistant how much of a positive impact they truly make in the office. Making comments of appreciation might seem insignificant, but when done with authenticity, they can go a long way in improving employee performance.

If you’re in a position where others report to you, consider utilizing some combination of recognition, encouragement, and appreciation to increase employee performance in your organization. And if you’re in a position where you have no direct reports, you can still make a positive impact in your workplace by applying these strategies with your colleagues.

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