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Boss’s Tip of the Week #4: Informal Recognition: How to keep people motivated

Here is the fourth installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

It starts with the gold star on a kindergarten drawing. As we grow older, there are Twinkies® passed between friends at recess, notes written in yearbooks, and boosts onto the team’s shoulders after scoring the winning touchdown. We are endlessly inventive at finding ways to recognize each other.

Except, it seems, at work. People feel their work is largely unrecognized, or that it’s recognized in ways that actually do more harm than good. That’s disappointing for many reasons, not least of which is that recognition is one of the easiest, cleanest, and least expensive things a manager can do. Break the mold:

Decide what you want to encourage. Any recognition you offer sends a message to employees, so be sure you’re sending the right message. In her book, Management Would Be Easy … If It Weren’t for the People, Patricia Addesso talks about a software firm that recognized employees who eliminated bugs from a program. It was a great idea until employees started putting bugs into programs just so they could get rewarded for taking them out. It would have made more sense to reward employees who created bug-free programs in the first place.

Think small. We’re all ready to recognize the employee who cures cancer or puts a man on Mars, but those career-making events happen about as often as the Cubs win the World Series. Recognize the incremental step, the deadline beaten by days, the customer kudo, or the embarrassing error caught in time.

Be relentless. Saying thanks once or twice a year is nice, but it won’t have a big impact on your group’s culture. Make recognition a habit.

Keep your personal feelings out of it. Be careful not to recognize only those employees who are most vocal or who you like best.

Make it personal. If you know something about an employee’s hobbies or interests, try to tie what you do to those interests. You might give a can of tennis balls to a tennis nut, or movie passes to someone who wouldn’t dream of missing the Oscars. One boss had an employee who collected postcards, and made a point of sending her one whenever he traveled, each one praising her for something she’d done.

Be sensitive in your choices. Don’t give a big box of candy to someone on a diet, for example.

Be prompt. To make the most of recognition, offer it as close to the accomplishment as possible. Make it seem spontaneous.

Remember the team. Sometimes it’s tough to single out just one person. When that happens, recognize everyone. Send the group to lunch or bring them all breakfast.

Don’t get in a rut. Vary the recognition you offer to keep it fresh. Create a bank of ideas and then use them all. Recognition that becomes rote isn’t too motivating.

Be creative. Recognition is one big opportunity to have fun. Let your imagination run rampant and use all the tools at your disposal:

    • Time: Can you let people off early? Give them a longer lunch hour? Let them sleep in? Offer a day off?
    • Money: Cash is nice, of course, but so are gift certificates, movie passes, frequent flyer miles, and so on.
    • Food: Everyone has to eat. Consider lunch out or bringing lunch in. Bring in a gourmet coffee bar or have ice cream sundaes one afternoon.
    • Gifts: The number of small gifts you can offer is limited only by the number of catalogs and Internet shopping sites you can find.
    • Presentation: Say thanks in a handwritten note or with a card. If your employees speak English as a second language, have notes translated into their native language occasionally.

Offer at least some recognition privately. Business analyst Louis Ratcliffe points out that if you recognize people in staff meetings, but always take someone into your office to chew them out, then everyone knows what’s happening anyway: it might as well be a public reprimand. If you praise privately, nobody knows what’s being said and the dignity of the people receiving reprimands is saved.

Accept that you’ll screw up. Eventually, you’ll overlook someone who felt he really deserved recognition. It happens. Apologize and move on.  

Real Life Example

• With numerous drive-in restaurants to oversee, Rick Perkal, Vice President of Operations for Austin Sonic, realized that he wasn’t praising managers enough. “I got caught up in the doing,” he says. And he realized that the impact of the praise he did offer was often muted when he shared negatives or opportunities to improve in the same conversation. In response, he developed what he calls praising tours. Twice a month he visits each location for a praising stop. While there, he spots what’s right and offers praise. And then he leaves. Any negative observations are saved for another time. He describes the impact of the tours as “profound,” noting that people have a desire to please and appreciate the positive feedback. Because the feedback is so direct, Perkal has seen that the praising tours result in greater (and better sustained) improvement than before.

The praising tours are only one tool that Perkal uses. He’s a believer in standards that he describes as “clear, measurable and specific,” and in measuring against those standards. He also believes that people perform better when those measurements are used in a way that’s competitive and fun. One way in which he does that is a quarterly ranking of supervisors. The company leases a car (such as a Corvette or Cadillac) for the top-ranked supervisor to drive for the next quarter. If they keep their top ranking they also get to keep the car another quarter. But if someone else earns the top ranking then there’s a very public ceremony in which the car keys are handed over. Because everyone wants the keys – and no one wants to surrender them – the competition is a very effective incentive.

Boss’s Tip of the Week #4: Informal Recognition: How to keep people motivated
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