Employee Recognition 101 — How to Appreciate the work of your Team(s)
Guiding Principles and Actionable Tips for Effective Employee Recognition in fast-growing organisations (ie. Startups)
“People will rarely work at their maximum potential under criticism, but honest appreciation brings out their best “ — Dale Carnegie
If your company is conducting any internal surveys to measure the overall happiness of your employees, chances are that “not receiving enough recognition” scores high up among the areas of employees dissatisfaction.
Why should you care about Employee Recognition as a company?
A research by Harvard Business Reviews, on the low-cost American carrier JetBlue, reveals that for every 10% increase in people reporting being recognised, JetBlue saw a 3% increase in retention and a 2% increase in engagement.
Giving the huge cost companies incur in replacing an employee, it should be a no-brainer for any organisation to make recognition one of their organisational priority.
This is particularly important for startups and fast-growing organisations, where a big share of the managerial manpower is at its first experience in managing teams.
Below 5 principles which can be adopted by any manager in promoting appreciation within their teams, together with some concrete examples of practices we have introduced at iPrice, to make appreciation one of the pillars of our company culture.
1) Give honest and specific praise
Your display of appreciation will entirely lose its meaning if you follow a “recognition calendar”. Every person in your team should be recognised at some point, but only at the right time, when she/he truly deserves it.
Thanking someone for the “good job” or the “hard work” is not enough. You need to be able to justify your praise with a specific explanation of why it matters for you and for the company. Why is that action bringing you one step closer to the goal you have set?
To do so, you need to know exactly the facts and who contributed to it. In the majority of cases, the output will never be the result of a single person. If you are not sure about it, before publicly praising someone, ask to the people you know contributed to the outcome for the whole list of the contributors.
Try also to make your praise as timely as possible, without waiting for any formal monthly/quarterly/yearly performance review. Waiting too long will increase the chances you will forget the facts and your praise won’t come across as genuine.
2) Praise in public, criticise in private
Public praise gives more weight to your appreciation, thus incentivising the person to do more of the same. It also gives you the opportunity to reiterate the company values to your team(s) and to the entire company.
The main exception to this rule is if you know the person receiving the praise is uncomfortable with any sort of public recognition. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to know well enough your employees to be able to adapt the delivery according to her/his preferences.
When it comes to criticism, any public display of it will most often have negative consequences. It makes it much harder for the receiver to accept it, due to the triggering of her/his natural defensive reaction. If you need to criticise over email, just reply to the individual removing any other people in the email thread.
(A variation of the above is Warren Buffet’s dictum — “Praise by name, criticise by category”).
3) Praise shouldn’t come only from the direct manager
Although a fair share of praise should naturally come from the employee’s direct manager, you should try to incentivise praise to flow from/to other directions as well. In particular:
- Horizontal praise among your teams’ members: probably the most important form of recognition, after the praise coming from the direct manager. Having a culture of reciprocal appreciation among your team members’ will go a long way in increasing your teams’ harmony and therefore their productivity. Suffice to say, they are the ones who understand the day-to-day work better than anyone else. An appreciation coming from your peer will often be perceived as more genuine.
- Praise from the top management: as a manager, you should also praise your reports all the way up to the C-Level / CEO. You can then pass the comments you collect from them back to your employee. I find it a better option than emailing your own supervisor and CCing your report. In most cases, it seems to me a way to make yourself (the manager) look good rather than the employee.
- Praise across teams: your position as a manager typically gives you visibility on activities and communications of other teams, which your reports don’t have access to. If you spot any indirect form of appreciation for the work done by any of your reports in such communications, make sure to let them know.
An example could be a presentation done by the Sales department which is displaying some work done by the Marketing team. As a hypothetical Marketing Manager, why not making such implicit appreciation explicit by forwarding such presentation to your team’s members?
4) Celebrate the work done, not just the final results
The efforts put by your employees in achieving their goals is fully under their control, the end result is often not.
Living by the popular dictum “the only thing that matters is the result” can bring to serious motivational distortions. This is especially true for startups, which are operating by definition in very volatile market conditions.
To the other extreme, you shouldn’t praise your employees for simply following a default “procedure”, which can negatively impact your company’s ability to innovate. You are pushing them to work as hard and creatively as possible to achieve the company’s goals. It’s your responsibility as a manager to know their day-to-day job well enough to be able to assess which factors are under their control and which are not.
A second reason to praise your employees before they achieve any final result is that by celebrating small intermediate wins you can keep the team motivated for longer-term projects.
5) Distribute praise evenly
If you are lucky enough to have in your teams one or few overachievers who consistently go above and beyond and keep crushing any target set, the risk is to over-concentrate your praise to one or a couple of your employees only.
This can cause the receiver of the praise to feel increasingly uncomfortable and can create a culture of envy and jealousy within your team. You don’t want this to happen.
Try to spread the praise as evenly as you can within your team, by rather focusing on the relative improvements of each of your employees. As long as the direction is the right one, no matter how small the improvement, you want to send a signal of encouragement to incentivise the person to do more of the same.
What can you do as a company to incentivise a culture of appreciation?
At iPrice, we have recently introduced two company-wide practices to incentivise more and more the spreading of a culture of appreciation.
‘Whoops the Monkey’
Here is what the idea consists of:
Dan Woods, who was CTO at a startup where I worked in the 1990’s, developed the cheapest, most effective system for encouraging praise and criticism on a team that I’ve ever seen. He used a stuffed whale (sometimes a dog) to encourage praise and a stuffed monkey to encourage public self-criticism. I admired his system so much I stole it, and it was probably my single most effective management tool at both Juice and Google.
Whale — Here’s how it worked: At every all-hands meeting, I invited people to nominate each other to win the killer whale for a week. The idea was to get people from the team to stand up and talk about some extraordinary work they’d seen somebody else do. The winner of the whale the previous week decided who deserved the whale this week.
Monkey — Next, people nominated themselves for the stuffed monkey, who we named “Whoops.” If anyone screwed up that week, s/he could stand up, tell the story, get automatic forgiveness, and help prevent somebody else from making the same mistake.
And an example of its implementation in Google Adsense Ops’ all-hands meetings:
At all hands meetings on Tuesday afternoons, our 75 person AdSense Ops team reviewed the most important metrics for the…tomtunguz.com
We have introduced the same practice in iPrice’s all hands weekly meetings and it is working wonders for us as well. We just added our own personal touch, by replacing the Whale and Monkey with a Lion and a Rooster instead :)
#ThankYou Slack channel
We recently created a dedicated Slack channel, to show appreciation to anyone who has contributed in making someone’s else day a little bit more joyful. Only one rule to follow: it doesn’t matter how small the contribution is.
Less than 48h after launching it, it has risen as the most popular channel in our company’s Slack.
As our #thankyou channel experiment can confirm, the expression of gratitude is contagious and can spread like wildfire within your organisation.
Or in more academic terms, quoting the words of Lea Waters:
Through the contagion and elevation effects, the expression of gratitude is amplified across an organisation and reciprocally expanded, which has the potential to positively influence job satisfaction of all employees
The last and most important principle of all is to hire people that deeply and genuinely CARE about the people they work with. If your managers truly appreciate the work of their teams, find joy in seeing their employees growing and make their career progression one of their top priority, expressing gratitude to them will come naturally.
To conclude, quoting David Novak and his HBR’s article:
Remember, recognition is a privilege, not just another item on your to-do list. As a leader, you have the privilege of feeding people’s souls and helping them feel great about themselves. And by feeding their souls, you’ll feed yours in return.