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@Work Advice: Trying to help underwhelmed workers and overwhelmed bosses

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Reader: Our company didn’t make sales quotas in 2011, so all 2012 bonuses and awards were frozen. Our department had stockpiled 12 $25 restaurant gift card awards before the freeze. Our director gave three cards to each of four team leaders (including me), to distribute as we want, saying that was “fairest.” The teams vary in size, so everyone on the smallest three-person team gets an award, while one-third of my 10 team members get one. The cards are to be publicly awarded at our monthly division “all-hands” meeting. How do I motivate my team when they see another team recognizing everyone regardless of performance? Even if I could afford to buy more cards, I’m not allowed to present them at the all-hands meeting. I thought of a team lunch, but I can’t afford it and can’t expense it. How do I handle this diplomatically?

Karla: You know your team members; would most of them prefer to share a meager but guaranteed award or compete for an individual, less meager prize? If the former, see if you can combine the cards to treat everyone to a takeout lunch (creative spin for the meeting: “Because their contributions are greater than the sum of their quotas”).

Otherwise, pick your top three sellers, and swallow your dismay about the equal-but-disproportionate prize distribution. If you seem bitter, your workers will be, too.

Good news: Most workers aren’t truly motivated by free breadsticks. Most prefer a boss who regularly acknowledges their effort with praise, gratitude and lobbying on their behalf at review time. And maybe the occasional box of doughnuts.

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Reader: I work in a small office within a larger department and am blessed with one of the kindest, most talented bosses one could hope for. He has endured more than his share of bureaucratic messes, and I’m concerned he is on the edge of burnout. Is it ever appropriate to try to cheer the boss up? How would you recommend doing so?

Karla: Level with me: Are you sweet on your boss? If you’re harboring even the teeny-tiniest crush, back away now. The last thing he needs is a puppy-eyed underling or accusations that he’s engaging in a little quid pro quo with said underling.

If you just don’t want to lose a good leader to burnout, support him by keeping things in your domain running smoothly so he can focus on the bigger picture. Beyond that, a funny card or gag gift might be appropriate. But it would probably be best if you and your co-workers all chipped in.

Karla L. Miller is ready to hear your work dramas and traumas. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com. You can also find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork, or Facebook.

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