Genuine: Making staff recognition authentic

The five ingredients of GREAT staff recognition

The acronym GREAT is a reminder of the ingredients of powerful staff recognition. To be most meaningful and valued by recipients, GREAT recognition must be Genuine (inspired by a sincere sense of appreciation for what the person did). Your message of appreciation becomes stronger as other ingredients are added: Relevant (linked to what your organization feels is important), Explicit (includes a specific description of what the recipient did), Appropriate (reflecting the interests and recognition needs and the preferences of the recipient) and Timely (delivered soon after the behaviour occurs).

This is the first of a series of five articles, each of which will focus on different ingredient for GREAT staff recognition.

Why do staff members value the recognition that some leaders provide while other attempts to recognize employees fall flat?

Why are some leaders able to recognize staff in ways that boost morale, increase engagement and improve retention, while what other leaders do seems to make no difference?

Is it that some people just write better thank-you notes, give better rewards or offer better praise?

The truth is that the value and effectiveness of staff recognition is not determined by what you do, but by why you do it, as assessed by those who are recognized.

Recognition must be seen as inspired by a sincere sense of appreciation for what the recipients achieved or how they contributed. 

Recognition must be Genuine. It is the essential ingredient.

If recognition is not motivated by a sincere sense of appreciation—if it’s not Genuine—the suggestions that I (and others) make about how to recognize staff will not be effective. 

The ability to recognize others in ways that they perceive as Genuine depends on how staff members feel about the people providing the recognition, and that comes down to two concepts: trust and respect.

Do staff members know, respect and trust you? Do you know, respect and trust them?

When Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin, authors of The Great Workplace, asked,Is your organization a great place to work?” and “Why?” what they heard from staff members who felt they worked in a great place was that, “they believe their leaders to be credible, respectful and fair—they trust them.”

Researchers find that providing recognition appears to increase trust levels. Ninety per cent of employees who receive recognition trust the boss who provides the recognition, while only 48 per cent of staff members who are not being recognized trust their bosses.

Without respect and trust, attempts at recognition will be seen to be empty rituals, rather than Genuine expressions of appreciation for what people achieve and how they contribute.

One common practice that destroys a leader’s credibility is recognizing everyone the same way. They do not want to treat anyone differently, because this may be seen as “unfair” and might upset other staff. Some even use this fear as an excuse for never recognizing anyone.

Staff members know that different people contribute in different ways at different levels of effectiveness. Most accept that there will be differences in how individuals are recognized. They understand, as Thomas Jefferson did, that “Nothing is more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”

Avoid other practices that make attempts at recognition appear insincere, such as:

  • Following praise with the word “but,” a verbal eraser that cancels everything that went before.
  • Sandwiching criticism between two layers of praise, which appears to buffer criticism, rather than acknowledging contributions.
  • Immediately assigning new tasks, without allowing time for the recipient to savour the recognition.
  • Attempting to recognize an individual you don’t know (and who doesn’t know you), whose name you can’t pronounce, and whose contribution you don’t understand.
  • Laying it on too thick, hoping that at least one platitude will fit the circumstances.

On the other hand, there are ways to recognize staff that make it clear that your appreciation is Genuine:

  • Recognize people only when you sincerely believe they deserve to be recognized, not because “it’s the thing to do” or because someone said you should recognize staff more (although you probably should).
  • Separate positive feedback from the negative, except when conducting performance appraisals, during which both are expected.
  • Ensure that your body language and tone of voice are in sync with your words of praise.
  • Include as many of the other ingredients of GREAT staff recognition—Relevant, Explicit, Appropriate and Timely—as you can in your message. The more ingredients you include—and they don’t all need to be present every time—the stronger your message of appreciation.
  • Be emotional. Show recognition comes from the heart. Let them know how good you feel about what they did.
  • Be consistent. Recognize what deserves to be recognized, no matter who did it, when or where. Never recognize what doesn’t warrant recognition, just because you feel bad that Joe has not been recognized recently. Wait and watch. His turn will come.
  • Keep it short and simple. The longer and more flowery a presentation, the more artificial it seems.
  • Provide honest feedback. When someone screws up, tell him. When he succeeds, tell him. Both types of feedback will be more believable. 

Up next: Relevant: Making staff recognition strategic

The missing element that will sink your staff recognition efforts

“No legacy is so rich as honesty.”

– William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well

TRUST Business Concept and TRUST FUND achievement, announcement, assistance

Sometimes what we say and do is inconsistent with our stated beliefs. I discovered one such inconsistency recently when I revisited the chapter on peer recognition in Thanks! GREAT Job! as I prepared to write a short book on the role of managers in encouraging and supporting peer recognition.

I was surprised by the disconnect between something I wrote and the title of the chapter, “Trust Recognition to Those Who Know Best.”

Trust is one of three relationships—along with pride and camaraderie—which Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin identified in The Great Workplace as commonly present in companies that appear on lists of great places to work, based on the work of The Great Places to Work Institute. Over four decades and in several countries, the Institute has been responsible for creating lists of the best places to work, including the one published annually in Fortune magazine. I highlighted the importance they place on those three relationships in a previous article.

“Specifically, [employees] believe their leaders to be credible, respectful and fair—they trust them (emphasis added). They also take pride in what they do, and they share a sense of camaraderie with their co-workers. Without trust, pride, and camaraderie, any measure of business success is diminished,” wrote Burchell and Robin.

Not trusting staff to know who to recognize

Organizations frequently include trust, respect and fairness when listing their values. Recognition should reinforce these values (which is a way to make recognition Relevant, one of the ingredients of GREAT staff recognition), but often staff recognition programs seem to reflect a completely different set of values. Managers don’t seem to trust employees to recognize the right people for the right reasons. They don’t respect their judgment. This seems unfair.

This is obvious in formal staff recognition programs that rely on peer nominations to identify award winners. It seems a valid approach until we examine what happens between the time—often a considerable amount of time—when nominations are submitted and the awards are presented. Like most formal programs, these well-intentioned initiatives often become bogged down by myriad rules and policies.

Rather than permitting nominations to stand on their own, they must be reviewed by a committee created to assess whether the recognition is deserved or whether the person was just doing their job. Frequently, before the committee confirms the peer-nominated award, a supervisor must sign-off on the nomination. The purpose of this extra step is to ensure that no one is recognized if there are concerns about the person’s performance, and to confirm—from the supervisor’s perspective—that the person’s behaviour actually deserves recognition.

This is not the way peer recognition should be. It’s about trusting staff to know who deserves to be recognized and how best to provide that recognition.

Managers are a catalyst and support for peer recognition

The role of managers related to peer recognition is quite simple. Be the catalyst to get peer recognition going. Provide opportunities for staff to recognize colleagues. Give them some tools and tips they can use to recognize co-workers.

Then get out of the way and let it happen. Policies, rules and guidelines are not required. Leave it to staff members, and peer recognition will unfold as it should.

Of course, things won’t always go smoothly. The new book will include a section describing what can go wrong with peer recognition, and why this seldom matters.

It’s advice I should have had in mind when I wrote Thanks! GREAT Job!

Despite writing about trusting staff and proposing that there should be “few, if any, rules,” I still proceeded to suggest where a rule was required to avoid a problem that I anticipated might occur. But I didn’t explain why I felt it was necessary and I never considered that it really wouldn’t matter if what I was concerned about happened.

“Recognition ball” is an activity to encourage peer recognition during staff meetings. Staff members have the opportunity to toss a soft sponge ball from one to another. The person holding the recognition ball has the opportunity to recognize a co-worker.

A rule that really isn’t needed

After expressing appreciation to the colleague, the person throws the ball to someone else—and now, here comes the unnecessary rule— “anyone but the person who was just recognized.”

Why did I think this rule was needed? To avoid creating a situation where two people volley the recognition ball between them, each recognizing the person who just recognized him/her and excluding others from the activity.

Really, how likely is this to occur? And would it matter if it did? Surely we can trust staff members to understand the need to be more inclusive in distributing recognition.

Rules written in anticipation of what is unlikely to occur—and which won’t matter if it does—erode the trust necessary for staff recognition to flourish, whether from managers or from colleagues.

What rules do you have surrounding your staff recognition efforts that are really unnecessary?