Monday 16 November 2020

Recognition - the leadership secret weapon that drives communities

A couple of weeks ago a change came over me at work. I felt more engaged with what I was doing. I was more motivated to overcome challenges that the day before had felt overwhelming. I had more purpose and confident in my decisions. What, you might ask, was the driving force behind this burst of positivity. Had I started some new medication? Was I trying out a new brand of coffee? Had I had a pay rise? No - in actual fact the reason was far simpler than this - I'd received a compliment on my work.

Proving the power of recognition

You can't spend 3 years leading the product team in an employee engagement company, as I did, without learning a few things about motivation. One of the key lessons that I took away from my time in that role was the vital importance of recognition to employee motivation. The statistics around the importance of recognition are easy to find, and compelling.

  • The many figures quoted in this post include evidence that recognition both reduces employee frustration and increases engagement
  • This article by Gallup also contains some interesting figures, such as "employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they'll quit in the next year"

The power of recognition is such that blue chip companies will happily pay six-figure sums for software just to provide a way for employees recognise each other for their work. Entire application frameworks exist to support peer recognition, and these features are now leaking into our mainstream collaboration and professional networking tools such as in the Microsoft Teams "Praise" feature or LinkedIn "Kudos".

A failure to recognise, and recognising failure

Given that employee recognition is such a powerful force in motivation, it is surprising how easy it is to build a culture that overlooks it. The absence of positive recognition is a depressingly common problem

  • This study quoted 82% of americans feeling that their employer didn't recognise them enough at work
  • Another one quoted 70% of employees say that motivation and morale would improve “massively” with managers saying thank you more.

Even worse than a mere absence of recognition is when cultures evolve to recognise people not for their achievements but for their failures. In the situation where achievements go unnoticed but mistakes are highlighted it's not difficult to see how employees start to question their value to the company. I wonder how many individuals have only truly been told how much they were valued after they handed in their notice.

Practical Examples are Easy to Find

Despite the impressive statistics and powerful research around the presence, or absence, of recognition, it's more immediate and personal observations that I find more interesting. In examining the the behaviour within ourselves and our communities, demonstrations of the power of recognition are never far away.

By way of a small recent example - I've struggled during the Coronavirus lockdown to engage my kids in pracising their musical instruments. They will happily practice to work towards a concert or performance which will provide the reward of recognition from grandparents or school friends. Remove that incentive and it became immeasurably harder to engage them in their practice. This doesn't just apply to kids - I also play cornet (bit like a trumpet) in a band and have struggled to motivate myself to practice without the driver of upcoming performances.

Recognition is the Engine Driving Communities

A more significant demonstration of how powerful a motivator recognition can be lies in professional communities. If we look at the way that professional communities operate and interact then we can see recognition as one of the primary driving factors. Individuals will freely give huge amounts of valuable time and effort in exchange purely for the chance of professional peer recognition, and it is this motivation that powers the vibrant communities that us software professionals enjoy.

Of course there are financial elements that support a community, such as through ticket sales, sponsorship and consultancy, but these are tolerated as necessary rather than celebrated. A professional community is not a money based market, it is a recognition based one. Tweets, shares and references are the currency of community members, and these cost nothing.

Whereas people will gladly give hundreds of pounds worth of time and effort in exchange for recognition, this time is given at their convenience when perhaps family commitments are finished for the day (my younger children are in bed while I am writing this post). Vying for personal finances, on the other hand, comes in direct competition with family expenses and is therefore harder to justify. Similarly obtaining funding from employers for professional membership, when much of the value gained is in personal recognition, is a hard sell.

Be careful what you recognise

I hope that this post has convinced you that recognition is too important to ignore. Before you run off and implement an expensive annual recognition programme, here are some points to bear in mind

  • Recognition is too important to leave to an annual review. Achievements are best acknowledged immediately so the receiver associates the recognition with the event. Better to recognise quickly and often than to save praise for a few lucky souls once a year and risk leaving everyone else demoralised.
  • Be careful what you recognise - sure it's important to acknowledge when people put in extra effort, but if you're recognition is limited to when folks work late or weekends then you risk building a culture of presenteeism where working long hours is valued more highly than achievement.
  • Recognise improving on mistakes - everyone makes mistakes, if you want to encourage a blame free culture then acknowledge mistakes but recognise when people proactively resolve them too. More importantly to avoid a "crisis culture" - recognise in future the improvement that people make to avoid the mistakes in the first place.

So recognition, like any influential force, needs to be applied in the right direction to avoid doing damage. But given that it is totally free, powerful enough to improve productivity and drive entire cultures, the greatest damage would be to underestimate the importance of recognition in the first place.


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