Scaling Culture 4: The Role of Recognition

Dogs. Chimps. Humans. We’re a lot alike. In addition to our four-chambered heart and love of social interaction, advanced mammals share a need for positive reinforcement. Managers have known that recognition programs are great for reinforcing desired behaviors since the first sales organization. But in my time studying company culture, I noticed there were more kinds of recognition than even a total rewards program includes. So I went about looking for and sorting the different types to see if I could make sense of them all. Here’s what I found.
I’m sure there’s many ways to organize corporate recognition programs, but i observed four primary kinds. Here’s how I think about it. The first observation is from whom the recognition comes. It can be either a manager above or a peer sitting the next cube over. Second, recognition can be formal or informal. Formal programs are developed by departments or companies to incentivize particular behaviors (sell more!), while informal programs happen with little or no management oversight. That’s the two basic axes. There is one other factor we’ll consider later, but let’s go through the four quadrants to better understand our options.

1. Formal Recognition from Leadership

Congratulations! You’ve done it. You’ve sold the most, coded the best, innovated the hardest. Whatever it is, you are being called out. Formal programs developed and activated by heads of state, or the typical ones. In the early 2000’s I helped create an innovation awards program for HP globally. We would put out a call for entries, film the judges, host a celebratory dinner, and bestow the trophies. Sometimes these programs can have monetary rewards, or trips associated. Over the past decade a friend always tells me of her end-of-the-year sales banquet and the trips they give to the highest performers. Like these they tend to be on a grand scale, but really, they don’t have to be. At a modest retail start-up I known, they hold a quarterly company-wide night out at the local pub and hand out tokens of appreciation to teams for great work.

Leadership buy-in
Employee buy-in
Broad communications
A committed budget

2. Formal Recognition from Peers

While formal recognition from on high is valuable, it is built on the assumption that the things we get rewarded with are what motivate us. But as Daniel Pink and others have shown, that’s not the case. Not that bonuses are being refused, but people respond just as well to praise accompanied by symbols that hold zero monetary value. Take for example my friends over at Delivering Happiness. Their team pass around the culture bacon—a pillow actually—to team members who exemplify their culture. It is then the current bacon owners choice who gets acknowledged next, but a bacon@ email address for nominations works as well. I love this exactly because the trophy is so silly. The tchotchkes have little monetary value but hold a lot in the way of social capital. It proves that if they can pass around a bacon pillow to reinforce awesome choices, anyone can find a trinket and create a peer to peer recognition program.

Team buy-in
Agreement around behaviors
Commitment to regularly enacting the program

3. Informal Recognition from Peers

Earnest praise. I see it as the most compelling way to motivate. If someone you work with is inspired to tell you how amazing your contribution to that last product was, well, that’s one of the best feelings in the world. I don’t know about you, but I never get tired of getting praised. Its a well of rewards that never runs dry. Informal recognition from peers requires little if any forethought, and costs nothing. Examples include the usual pat on the back, but let’s get creative. A note left anonymously is thrilling, a hand made gift certificate for a coffee and scone is fun, or maybe even a card-stock flag praising the person with a superlative that they can fly from their cube. For those digitally inclined and with peers in other locations, every one of these can be translated nicely over email, slack, or even, gasp, by mail! There is a weakness in camp informal, though: this kind of recognition tends to be sporadic and not usually tied to a consistent set of values or behaviors. Do your best to ensure your team mate know this is important, why, and lead by example.

People who know how to give praise
A list of behaviors we want to encourage
A little creativity

4. Informal Recognition from Leaders

Can I buy you lunch? There isn’t a better string of words in the English language if you ask me. And coming from a manager makes it that much better. Any team leader can spend a little time and money acknowledging great work choices, all the while deepening trust and rapport. Even a quick pat on the back goes a long way. These moments of recognition from leaders tend to happen less frequently than peers, but these more discreet mentions tend to be more explicit about a particular outcome or pattern of decisions. It is merely a cup of coffee if there is no subject to discuss. Managers need to look for specific instances to compliment once the latte is poured. One of the weaknesses is the small scale on which this occurs. I think the trade-off is worth the connection.

A leader who understands the power of one to one recognition
A small budget
A lot of willingness to set aside time for these encounters

Two additional nuances to call out between the top and the bottom of the 2×2. As we get into the informal the challenge is encouraging it to happen without it becoming stripped of it’s authenticity. The best way for a manager to grow an informal recognition is to watch for it to emerge and support it, as well as doing one’s best to connect it to behaviors and values. The second is about visibility of the recognition, one of the upsides of public recognition. The more people see a behavior being recognized, the more people will want to exhibit those choices. Informal recognition can be less visible: single peer to peer kudos tend to happen between moments. Make it happen within meetings or in front of the group. Something like pass the bacon should be team oriented any how, but are there ways to expand exposure beyond the department. And for lunch with the boss, perhaps its the second half of that managers job to publicly applaud the individual so others know how they can get a free lunch, too.

Which ever type of recognition you think will work for your culture, remember to be consistent and authentic. To do any of these programs well isn’t easy, but over time become a powerful lever for designing and managing your company culture.