During a recent senior leadership workshop that I conducted for a client, recognition asserted itself as an important and reflective conversation among the team members. It arose when a team member called our attention to it by saying, “There is so much that as a team we have accomplished over the last year, yet much of it goes unrecognized. We miss celebrating our success because we are obsessed with the urgency of the moment, the gaps and the next objectives that demand our attention. Let me give you an example.” Pointing at one of the team members she proceeded, “I want to recognize you for the way you led Project Alpha.” She explained what she observed and then grounded the recognition on a specific outcome the project had delivered. She then moved to the second person and the third to recognize and acknowledge their respective contributions.
The energy and the feeling around the table shifted completely. It was a moment of appreciation for the power of recognition. Everyone present experienced the energy release in the pivot from scarcity to abundance, from outage to the sense of accomplishment, and from being not sure to can-do confidence.
Before we delve further into the benefits and uses of recognition, we must make a clear distinction between recognition and rewards. Although the two terms often are used interchangeably and represent complementary concepts, they have dissimilar purposes, designs, timing, and uses.
The reasons why I characterize recognition as an “essential organizational currency” are evident in this partial list of its individual and company benefits. Recognition:
a) satisfies a basic human need to be seen and recognized.
b) fulfills the human need to feel that we are part of something larger when it is tied to the organization’s core values and/or desired future.
c) boosts the morale of the giver of the recognition as well as of the receiver.
d) helps create an appreciative environment that inspires people to do their best and use their talents to their fullest.
e) increases retention because people feel valued.
f) reinforces desired behaviors, actions, and outcomes when the connection between the activity and the recognition is very clear.
g) inspires individual and team creativity, innovation, and commitment.
h) enables interpersonal connection, resonance, and coherence.
i) unleashes great possibilities because it enhances individuals’ feelings of self-worth.
Recognition long has been the best-kept secret in the corporate world, as managers typically have relied on monetary rewards to entice their people to achieve desired results. More recently, however, recognition has begun to emerge from behind the curtain of obscurity into the limelight. Perhaps that transition was triggered by the need to cut costs, or by the fact that many reward programs are ineffective because they aren’t well designed, or by the changing priorities and values of newer entrants to the workforce. For whatever reason(s), employers are learning that the return on investment (ROI) of recognition practices is stratospheric.
With this background in mind, let us return to the conversation about recognition during my client’s leadership workshop. Here are five insights that arose from that discussion.
1. Humans have a deep innate need to be seen and to be recognized. It’s something that is wired into us very early in our development. Thus, depriving people of recognition can be as debilitating as any other pain.
2. Recognition is a form of organizational currency. By making regular deposits you can earn substantial returns in the form of unleashing your team’s individual and collective positive, creative potential.
3. For recognition to be most effective, you must be very clear about WHY you are acknowledging someone. Tying the reason for the appreciation to a specific desired outcome or core value boosts the impact significantly. For example, you may want to recognize:
a. Effort: “I’ve seen you putting in extra hours to solve this issue, which has enabled us to stay on schedule with the project.”
b. Behaviors: “I’ve observed your stepping up to take the initiative on our last two projects. Now other people are beginning to follow your example.”
c. Personal qualities: “Your openness and transparency have helped our team develop greater trust in each other than we previously experienced.”
d. Personal or professional development: “Nine months ago when we started this project we hoped you would be able to grow into the role we needed you to play. Your performance has confirmed our confidence in you. You enabled us to deliver the results we promised — our confidence in you was well placed.”
e. Potential: “I see in you the capability to achieve more than you think you’re able to accomplish. Your conflict management skills enabled us to keep an important customer that we were about to lose.”
f. Outcomes: “Our team has exceeded senior management’s expectations largely because the appreciative approach you model has enabled us to establish a work environment that allowed our members to increase our collective creativity ten-fold in the past year.”
4. Recognition requires a personal knowledge of others, such as what they value and what inspires them to do their best. To be effective, the form that recognition takes must be tailored to each person’s preferences, such as whether s/he would rather be praised in public or in private.
5. People at all levels of the organization should be encouraged to recognize others, both formally and informally.
There literally are hundreds of no- or low-cost ways to recognize people for their contributions or efforts. Here are a few examples:
a. Offer a heart-felt “thank you” in a face-to-face conversation. Be very specific about what you appreciate and about the impact the behavior or action had on the team, a customer, or the company. Depending on the person’s preference, you may do this during a private discussion or during a team or other public meeting.
b. Celebrate progress and achievements during team meetings. Go around the room and give each person the opportunity to share something positive they’ve done personally or that they’ve seen someone else do.
c. Send a handwritten note to the person to convey your appreciation for something that s/he did. Be sure you describe the incident in behavioral terms and identify clearly the impact it had. Send a copy to the person’s supervisor or manager as well as the personnel file.
d. For a variation on c, send the letter to the person’s family to let them know that his/her efforts are appreciated. If relevant, thank the family members for supporting the employee’s need to work late hours on a project.
e. Provide tickets to a local event (e.g., sports event, theater, theme park) or restaurant that you know the person would appreciate. Include the family if you are able to do so. This kind of recognition creates a long-lasting memory for the entire family.
f. Learn people’s names and use them. This is particularly effective in large organizations or in smaller ones where people tend to work in “silos.”
g. Give credit where credit is due, both verbally and in written reports.
h. Create a small memento that can be given to people who go above and beyond the call of duty. Give it a name and make it prestigious so that everyone notices when it is awarded. For example, FedEx created the “Golden Falcon” award for outstanding performance. It was represented by a small gold colored lapel pin in the shape of the Falcon jets that made up the company’s fleet in its early days.
i. Arrange for the team to have lunch with the company president or CEO when they’ve reached a significant milestone.
j. Tell stories that illustrate how people demonstrated the company’s core values.
k. Invite people to a meeting at which their ideas or work will be presented to senior management.
Now it’s your turn. Turn the key. Harness and apply the power of recognition. Cultivate this precious interpersonal organizational currency by frequently acknowledging the value of the people around you and expressing your appreciation of their contributions. As you build the recognition practice you will discover your power to shift conversations, to shape growth opportunities and to create a new future today.
You can listen to an audio version of this by subscribing to the Create New Futures podcast