If you’ve ever worked in Corporate America, you’ve probably taken a class on giving recognition. Sometimes they call it praise, but it means the same thing. The facilitator starts the lesson by telling you about the importance of praising your colleagues.
“Everyone likes to be recognized.”
There is truth to that statement, though I would modify it to read like this.
“People like to be recognized when they feel they’ve earned it.”
Of course, in a corporate training program, we can’t add qualifiers like that. They start with the assumption that we all work hard and, therefore deserve praise on some pre-determined interval.
Are we entitled to recognition or must we earn it?
The modern approach is akin to giving everyone a trophy just for competing. Nobody feels bad for missing out, but it dampens the feel of victory. The value of the trophy plummets when everyone gets one.
I’ve participated in several of these training programs in the last twenty years. The basics can be explained in five minutes, but they typically inflate the course so that it extends to two hours.
Before they dismiss us, they hand out our parting homework.
Recognize at least three people a day for the next week. Write an essay about the experience, turn it in, and you’ll get credit for the course.
Your coworker calls you and says, “you answered that call with such professionalism. I’m in awe.”
Oh for f*ck sake, you think. “You’re welcome. And I admire the way you asked that question with such poignancy. Well done.”
Humorous exchanges like the one above provide some lasting value, though I don’t think it’s what the instructors intended.
When you force recognition as part of “culture,” it becomes an obligation to give it and a responsibility of the receiver to return it. You both checked off a box, but nobody benefitted.
The law of supply and demand
Give it when you feel someone’s earned it. The recipient will know he deserved it when you set the bar high.
There’s that old trope about the grumpy old boss who never has a kind word.
“If Sam praises your work, you know you’ve done a great job. He never has anything nice to say about anyone.”
You don’t need to be an ass to make your praise stand out. You can be judicious with your acclaim without being a jerk.
There are three rules you must do to make it effective. There are also three guidelines you should do if the opportunity manifests.
The three “musts” of recognition and praise
These are the boxes you need to tick every time you shower someone with praise.
Recognition must be genuine
Don’t lie to satisfy a requirement or fulfill an expectation. This rule sounds obvious. When corporate trainers tell us to recognize three people in the next three days, it becomes an act of obligation. You can sense it when you’re on the receiving end. It feels cheap and disingenuous.
There’s a school of thought that says praising someone for a trait you’d like them to excel at will motivate them to act in a manner consistent with the undeserved recognition. That’s scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to motivational techniques.
Recognition must be specific
Specific and narrow recognition means more to the recipient than generalized, wide-ranging praise. See these two examples.
“Jenny, you did a phenomenal job on all aspects of that project.”
Compare that to this one.
“Jenny, you did a phenomenal job. Your Thursday night team huddle motivated the team to get back on track and you showed a rare genius in persuasion when you coaxed the coalition of clients back from their threat to pull out of the deal.”
Specificity tells the recipient the precise reason you feel they deserve praise. It not only feels nice, but it also gives the recipient valuable information about what they did right and the kind of skills you value.
Recognition must be significant
Recognition is not limited to herculean efforts and significant successes, but you should reserve it for work with some significance. Praising someone for showing up on time insults the recipient. It’s like saying this insignificant act of showing up to work at the required time is the best they’re capable of (in your eyes).
Praise someone for doing something beyond what you expect from them, or at least beyond what they’ve shown they’re capable of in the past.
The higher the bar you set for giving recognition, the more meaningful it becomes when you dish it out.
The three “should’s”
These suggestions are dependent on the circumstances in which you recognize someone for their excellence.
You should recognize publicly
Recognizing someone’s excellence in front of their peers is like injecting them with a double dose of dopamine. It’s not always possible to do this. Circumstances sometimes dictate that you must do it in private.
Public recognition should be about pointing out what the recipient did to earn your praise. Do not use it as a tool for shaming or motivating others to up their game. That kind of approach fuels resentment.
You should tailor recognition to the individual’s passion
We love it when others praise us for skills we pride ourselves in. Don’t believe me? Tell any guy he is a fantastic driver. Watch him straighten his posture and beam with pride.
If you pride yourself in your ability to create striking presentations, it tickles your ego when someone compliments you on your skillfulness.
True, you cannot read someone’s mind. You don’t always know what skills your peers, friends, and subordinates pride themselves in. You can understand body language. A smile and small fist pump tell you something different than a shrug and the slightest of head nods.
If you lack face to face contact, pay attention to their words. If I compliment you on a presentation and you reply “thanks,” it tells me something different than if you respond with a history of your work, achievements and a desire to do more.
You should demonstrate recognition. Don’t just tell it
It feels wonderful when someone praises you for a skill or task you enjoy doing. If the giver of recognition goes further and asks you to do more of it, she demonstrates her confidence and belief in your expertise.
Coupled with the previous rule, it’s the pinnacle in recognition.
- Tim prides himself in giving presentations.
- His boss, Sara, calls the team into a conference room. She recognizes Tim for his superior work.
- She asks Tim if he’d like to own the presentation responsibility going forward.
- Tim blushes and accepts.
Tim’s boss designated him as the go-to guy for all presentations. His peers now recognize his leadership. She demonstrated her praise by asking him to lead the effort going forward.
“I want more of what you do best” is the most rewarding form of recognition.