The topic of gratitude and recognition has been a big focus for me of late. I’ve been encouraging my team to share recognition for others’ help, the value they bring, and the unique qualities that build the team experience. In general, the team welcomed the idea but questioned the execution. A question asked was, “What if we don’t mean it?” It was a question that put me off but, to be fair, a valid one. We’ve all been in a situation where participation prizes were given to make sure everyone felt included and recognized, which devalued the recognition process. What makes using recognition as a tool to help others feel better about themselves any different?

Recognition is a very interesting tool. It can be used to foster competition or generate a sense of exasperation when used wrongly. It can build a team, or just an individual while destroying the ecosystem. When used with care and purpose, it can build a culture. When carelessly thrown to the side, it can become yet another failed experiment. It all comes down to the intent and meaning you put behind it.

Sales is an excellent example of a competition-based recognition strategy that succeeds. Generally dominated by highly competitive personalities, a sales team will thrive when they have an exclusive prize in view. Recognition in terms of financial or other perks becomes the prize, driving everyone to perform well or excel. The meaning behind sales recognition is the value brought to the company’s bookings and bottom line. The more a salesperson brings in, the more the company can recognize toward margin and ultimately profits.

Now apply that idea to another scenario. If you set up a competition within your team for “best customer service” or “most hours worked” and you drive very specific behaviors toward spending a lot of time hand-holding a customer for that CSAT score, or decimating work/life blend to get that prize. People will either reduce productivity to get high CSAT every time or they will kill themselves to prove they have what it takes. Neither of these behaviors is likely to be desirable, though they technically meet your criteria of best.

When building a team, recognition can be powerful if used to foster and grow those desired behaviors. A good example would be recognition around collaboration, team support, or outstanding quality of work. The behaviors are varied, all tied to measurable KPIs, and therefore make easy recognition opportunities for multiple people based on their strengths. It’s a common method that most organizations apply to non-competitive departments that look to recognize excellence within established KPIs.

Taken this further, it’s possible to weigh too heavily on those who are regular high-performers, or have more opportunity to excel because they are more senior. Or, to not leave anyone out, management will often find some type of recognition that fits the person instead of the KPI. It can also be tempting to use recognition as the only form of reward, as opposed to bonuses, raises, or promotions, even though excellence in meeting KPIs brings high value to the organization. If not properly followed up, this type of recognition becomes meaningless and will often be treated as a running gag amongst employees. It can even become a point of toxicity amongst employees, leading to derisive comments directed at those who are rewarded just for doing their job.

What does this all have to do with gratitude and meaning, you ask? A fair question. Gratitude is an expression that is given to those who assist when it is most needed by someone who needs that help. Someone who is in a vulnerable spot requires help and expresses that gratitude when help is received. The receiver then knows that the person who helped can be trusted. If the receiver then publicly recognizes the helper, trust is reciprocated. Therefore gratitude, if used and recognized properly, becomes a vehicle to build trust in a team. That trust, in turn, builds respect, and respect will foster inclusion and belonging within a team. Expand this throughout an organization, and you build a strong culture of gratitude.

The meaning comes from the act of helping. Often help comes, not through completing tasks, but the way the tasks had been completed. Every individual has their particular strengths, skills, and knowledge they bring to work every day. And while someone may physically help with tasks, someone else may give guidance. Still, someone else may provide emotional support, and yet another person can provide a good laugh at just the right time. These non-KPI skills and values brought to the job are just as valuable as KPIs because they build, sculpt, and define the climate and culture in which everyone works.

The problem is, that gratitude can only be expressed when someone is feeling vulnerable. If the company culture doesn’t provide a psychologically safe space for vulnerability even someone who is grateful will not recognize that beyond a verbal thank-you. Leadership will never know, and the value of that gratitude is greatly diminished, or often ignored. The company culture then suffers and presents a breeding ground for toxicity within the workplace. Ironically, the simple process of acknowledging gratitude within a company can build that safe space.

I’ve been encouraging gratitude, and leading by example, within my team to help build a stronger culture of inclusion and belonging within the team. I’ve also encouraged other leaders to follow along, breaking down their comfort zones and exposing their vulnerabilities in doing the same. I started by setting some ground rules:

  1. Your recognition needs to be focused on the how, not just the what: How did someone help you, and what did they bring to the table that made this experience so important to you?
  2. Be personal: express your gratitude in a very personal, direct way that connects to what their support has meant
  3. Be real: If you are faking it, you are not grateful. If you aren’t grateful, then why are you posting something?

This last point I’d like to expand on. Too many leaders feel obligated to express recognition for something, and so they will write something out that is, well, not as sincere as it could be. And the person receiving it will know. They always do. Remember, they were there as well. They know how they helped, how you took it, and whether or not your expression is genuine.

Now what if you can’t think of anything at all, yet you want to recognize someone because they did something? Think deep, and ask yourself some searching questions:

  • Why do you feel it necessary to recognize this person?
  • What was it they did you feel was extraordinary?
  • How did they help?
  • What made their help so useful? For this question, don’t think about the “what,” but rather the “why.” Look at the intangibles, the personality the person brought, and their attitude that made the experience unique to them

I’m in the business of Training, so I naturally know that skills can be taught to anyone. Proper training can help anyone do anything given enough time. What can’t be taught is the personality, vitality, humor, and sincerity that someone brings to the workplace. It’s those intangibles that magnify the value of someone’s effort. Those intangibles should be recognized, particularly when they are most valued: when you are vulnerable and in need of them. Express your gratitude at work, and I promise you that your work culture will change for the better. It’s not a silver bullet, but a valuable tool when building a culture of trust, inclusion, and belonging.

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