Reflecting on Recognition Practices

How much recognition do you typically give each week to your staff? Do you tend to give less recognition on Tuesdays — or during your busy season? Are you confident that your recognition is distributed fairly and consistently across your team, or might some members be receiving more attention than others?

Whether you're unsure about your recognition practices or interested in leveling up your leadership skills, let's explore the critical role of the rhythm in recognition and how a structured approach, supported by tools like the Valchemy app, can enhance team morale and productivity.

The Impact of Fluctuating Recognition

There are times when you're fully engaged in recognizing team members' contributions, and other times when life might cause you to fall behind in this crucial practice. When team members perceive a drop in recognition frequency or enthusiasm, it can inadvertently send mixed signals. They may begin to question their performance or wonder if they've disappointed you.

An unintentional reduction in recognition can sow seeds of self-doubt and uncertainty. Regular and consistent tracking of recognition practices is key to preventing these misunderstandings and sustaining a positive and supportive team environment.

The Importance of Disciplined Recognition

Recognition in leadership often happens impulsively, driven by moments when leaders feel inspired or remember to offer praise. This sporadic approach, lacking in regularity and structure, results in inconsistent and potentially ineffective acknowledgment.

A sign that you may not be recognizing individuals enough is if you experience the temptation to give group feedback. Despite good intentions, resorting to group feedback often fails to truly connect, as it typically results in generic feedback that resonates with no one.

Reflecting on Personal Recognition Experiences

Think back to a time when you did something great and were recognized for it. Now imagine, instead of being told why your specific contribution was important, you heard a generic 'thank you' to the whole team. Consider how much less impactful that would have been.

Likewise, recall a time when you worked hard as part of a team and the feedback was generic; how much more meaningful would it have been if your efforts were individually acknowledged?

The Symphony of Sequential Recognition

In a team, recognition should be like a solo in a symphony, where each member has their moment to shine. Sequential recognition creates a rhythm of appreciation, highlighting each individual’s contribution without diluting the impact through generic team acknowledgments.

Practical Implementation Steps: The Four-to-One Rule and Optimal Frequency

One practical approach to maintaining a healthy recognition rhythm is the four-to-one rule:

For every corrective comment given to a team member, aim to recognize their positive contributions at least four times.

Recognition should extend beyond leaders; fostering a culture where peer-to-peer recognition is prevalent strengthens team bonds and improves the overall team dynamic.

Keep in mind, recognition doesn't always require extraordinary achievements; it's just as much about reinforcing simply doing a good job and acknowledging the value of consistent performance and meeting expectations.

Aim to recognize 1-2 people every 1-2 days. Recognizing a single individual is impactful, but acknowledging two at a time can balance the focus and prevent undue attention on one person.

Recognizing more than two individuals at once risks diluting the impact as the focus shifts from individual achievements to broader group acknowledgments. This balance ensures that team members are nurtured and grow, receiving the positive reinforcement they need.

It's important to understand that these are simply guidelines. It is necessary to fine-tune a recognition rhythm that best suits your team, while considering factors such as your organization's structure, industry, team size, and whether your team works remotely or on-site. If you're interested in tailoring a recognition strategy that fits your unique needs, schedule a no-pressure discovery call here.

Recognition Amid Individual Struggles

It's important to continue recognizing team members, even if they're facing challenges in some areas. Acknowledging their strengths, particularly during these times, sends a clear message: they are still valued members of the team despite any current struggles.

This kind of recognition is crucial because it shows that struggling in one aspect doesn't diminish their overall worth or contributions. It helps individuals see their potential for growth and feel motivated to improve, even if they are on a performance improvement plan.

The Challenge of Tracking Recognition

Ensuring a consistent and fair recognition rhythm across your team is crucial, yet it can be a complex task. The fluctuations in recognition frequency, if not carefully monitored, can inadvertently send mixed signals, as discussed earlier.

Tools like the Valchemy app are designed to help leaders and team members alike in keeping track of who is being recognized and how often. This ensures that everyone, regardless of their role, receives timely and appropriate acknowledgment. By effectively monitoring recognition practices, leaders can prevent the negative impact of overlooked contributions and maintain high morale and productivity within the team.

The Path to Cultivating a Culture of Recognition

Creating a consistent, individual-focused recognition rhythm goes beyond mere leadership tactics; it's integral to fostering a vibrant and engaged team. This approach not only magnifies the effectiveness of your recognition efforts but also nurtures a culture of support and collaboration, essential for long-term success. Each team member feeling seen and appreciated for their unique contributions is key to building a dynamic and motivated team.

If you're reevaluating your recognition strategies or seeking to enhance your team's engagement, reach out for a discovery call; together we'll develop a custom solution specifically designed for your team's unique needs and culture, so that you can establish a recognition rhythm that drives growth and success in your team.

How to give effective performance feedback at work: Don't

When individuals develop habits that disrupt performance or culture, leaders are responsible for restoring productivity and unity. The most common tool managers use is correction through verbal feedback—telling someone how they need to improve—which can be effective when done properly.

But verbal feedback is tricky: it risks damaging the trust and psychological safety of the team, and the skills required to pull it off are rarer than you might expect.

There is no method for giving verbal feedback that works every time, for every person, in every situation. On the contrary, even the most carefully crafted message can backfire by generating frustration and resentment, making matters worse. It’s no wonder that giving corrective feedback is among any leader’s most dreaded and emotionally taxing duties.

Because of those downsides, even experienced VPs and CEOs regularly postpone difficult feedback conversations or avoid them altogether, leaving behavioral problems unresolved. This creates a lose-lose situation. If they happen at all, poorly executed conversations leave team members feeling demoralized, unsure about their objectives, and afraid of future contact with management.

Meanwhile, if the disruptive behavior is ignored, it will continue to frustrate other team members and create a much larger problem. As the team loses faith in management, morale declines, gossip and back-biting become more frequent, turnover increases, and even your best performers may lose motivation.

Luckily, there is a better way. Structured “cultivation” of healthy workplace behavior is often more effective than critical feedback, and carries far less risk.

Cultivation: Constructive without the criticism

Using a method I refer to as ‘cultivation’, you can address most behavior and performance issues without explicitly talking about them, which is ideal for anyone struggling to give effective feedback or looking for a reliable approach to improving workplace behavior. The idea is to substitute a more desirable behavior for the disruptive one. The process can be broken down into three steps:

1. Replace, don’t erase

The key to cultivation is identifying a specific positive behavior that will naturally compete with the one you don't want. 

Here’s an example. Imagine you run a coffee shop, and you have an employee who spends too much time on their phone during work. As a result, they fall behind on tasks, don't provide acceptable service to customers, and make small but frustrating mistakes on drink orders. You might reasonably conclude that the solution to all three problems would be for them to get off their phone.

Not necessarily. ‘Less phone’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘better performance.’ The employee might stop using their phone only to start distracting their coworkers with gossip instead. Getting rid of a disruptive behavior only produces positive outcomes if you replace it with something better.

In other words, there are an infinite number of behaviors you don’t want from your team. Offering only a single example of what they shouldn’t do provides no guidance about what they should.

Back to our example. What you actually want here is for your employee to focus on the task at hand, serve more customers, and produce higher quality work. These are the outcomes that increase value.

If an employee knows only what you don't want, their safest course of action is to do nothing at all. Erasing an unhelpful habit creates a behavioral vacuum which must be filled with a new behavior. If you don’t actively cultivate a better behavior to take its place, another disruptive one may take root. 

Behavior is like a garden: the point of pulling weeds is to make room for flowers.

2. Set the stage for the replacement behavior to grow

As with any process of cultivation, you need to provide opportunities for the new behavior to take root and mature over time. You’ll need to design situations in which your team member can practice the replacement behavior.

Going back to our coffee shop, you might challenge your distracted barista to set a recurring timer to check on customers every 10 minutes. This behavior naturally competes with the behavior of looking at their phone because you can’t reasonably do both at the same time.

The timer serves as behavioral training wheels, prompting frequent opportunities to engage in the desired behavior of providing more attentive service. Your goal is to help them establish behavioral momentum.

You’ll need to get creative to come up with the right training wheels for each new situation. Just remember that the point is to encourage the individual to start doing more of what you want without directly saying (or indirectly implying) that they have been disappointing you. The benefit of cultivation is that it allows us to improve behavior while avoiding critical feedback and its associated risks.

Start by clarifying the value-generating actions you want your employee to pursue, using language like the following:

Notice how we are providing immediate clarity and setting up opportunities for positive change, without offering a single word of constructive criticism. Cultivation allows us to initiate improvement without causing someone to feel like a failure. The result is a much more constructive and pleasant overall experience, both for you and for the person you’re developing.

3. Reinforce the desired behavior

Now that you’ve identified the replacement behavior and created opportunities for practice, the final step is to make sure it sticks. It’s well-established that habits form only after a behavior is repeatedly followed by “reinforcement.”

Reinforcement means providing immediate positive consequences after the desired behavior is performed, psychologically linking it to a desirable experience or outcome for the employee. While we are often not consciously aware of it, reinforcement is integral to any learning process and constantly influences our behavior.

So, to reinforce the desired behavior, you must provide a strong positive consequence immediately afterwards. The more positive and the more immediate the consequence is, the faster the new behavior will become a habit.

Getting reinforcement right requires thoughtfulness. In particular, make sure the reward you plan to use will be reinforcing from the employee’s perspective. What you see as a reinforcer might not feel like one to somebody else—if your employee has dietary restrictions, a gift card “reward” to a restaurant they can’t eat at will hardly function as a reinforcer. 

As for timing, I really do mean that reinforcement must be immediate, ideally within 5 seconds of a desired behavior taking place. That means it can be helpful for you to be physically present so that you can offer reinforcement right away, while the neurons are still warm. That said, late reinforcement is far better than no reinforcement at all.

The most fundamental and most essential form of reinforcement is genuine gratitude. Offering a meaningful “thank you” or “great job” as soon as you see someone doing what you’ve asked of them is a powerful way to reinforce their effort and progress. Even if the behavior is less than perfect, it’s important to help the individual establish the roots of their new habit. You will refine their behavior later on by reinforcing many small improvements over time.

Of course, offering praise and gratitude is itself a habit that you’ll need to develop. I recommend using the following model to help you construct messages of gratitude:

“Hey, I appreciated you doing [behavior], because [impact]. Thank you!”

Valchemy’s Engine app was built precisely for the purpose of helping team members offer this kind of reinforcing and supportive gratitude to one another. When you notice someone doing a great job, Engine allows you to send them a message recognizing their contribution. This not only serves as social reinforcement, it also leads to follow-on effects: Engine awards the recipient virtual tokens that can be redeemed for other forms of reinforcement, strengthening the effect and accelerating behavioral growth. Here are some examples of actual gratitude messages sent using Engine, written by individuals who have learned the process of cultivation:

Adjust the language to feel natural and personal, but make sure you always specify the behavior and the positive impact when sharing gratitude.

It’s worth noting that reinforcement is a precise and technical concept with some counter-intuitive aspects that aren’t covered in this brief overview. If you would like assistance designing an effective reinforcement strategy for your team, feel free to reach out by email, and stay tuned for an upcoming article dedicated to the nuances of reinforcement in the workplace.

New habits take time 

Whether you choose cultivation or opt for the riskier conversational approach, it’s going to take time to achieve a lasting shift in behavior. In the cultivation process, steps two and three (prompting and reinforcing) need to be repeated several times in order for the new habit to bloom. Sometimes as few as three repetitions is enough to create a self-sustaining habit, other times it can take weeks. 

But the advantages start right away: by following the three steps, you can clarify expectations, boost motivation and positive morale, and begin cultivating more constructive behavior—all without ever having to say those dreadful words, “Hey, we need to talk about your performance.”

That said, there are cases where verbal feedback will be required, particularly in emergencies when there is an imminent threat to someone’s safety or employment, and in other cases where the threat outweighs the interpersonal risks of verbal feedback. But these are particular kinds of situations; here, the purpose of verbal feedback is to hit the brakes so we can deal with the crisis, not to improve performance.

Verbal feedback alone typically won’t lead to reliable long-term change, even when delivered skillfully and successfully with no hard feelings. Your employee might wholeheartedly agree to improve, and mean it…and the desired behavior might still fail to show up (or might appear briefly only to vanish a few weeks later). Regardless of how change is initiated, reinforcement is necessary for habits to form.

Human psychology is complex, with countless variables influencing our behavior at any given time. Many times, I’ve watched as executives and managers become unnecessarily frustrated as they have the same difficult feedback conversation with the same person over and over. It rarely leads to change. New behavior almost always requires some degree of cultivation to become routine: clarify the desired behavior, create opportunities for practice, and reinforce repeatedly.

I hope these ideas are of use to you in your day-to-day work life. If you would like assistance learning or applying these concepts, please feel free to reach out. I'll be happy to help you transform your culture and bring out the best in those around you.

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