What if I told you that a simple yet often overlooked leadership habit could boost your team's morale and motivate your millennials? I'm not talking about new scientific evidence or anything you haven’t heard before. I’m guessing you may have planned to apply it, and, if you’re anything like me and the leaders I work with, when the opportunity is in front of you, it drops off your radar.
As early as 2012, research found that companies with "recognition-rich cultures" were outperforming their counterparts and had 31% less turnover. A June 2016 Gallup survey found that high performers want to feel valued and are looking for recognition for their efforts. Meanwhile, further research reports millennials are saying they want their efforts and hard work to be recognized publicly, and that formal recognition of their achievements is an important way to keep them engaged.
Knowing what we know, why is it so few leaders and managers take advantage of this powerful yet no-cost tool? What’s getting in the way? Simply put, it comes down to how we are hardwired, to the fact that we have well-established neural pathways in our brain that fire up when we start thinking. I like to call it the default highway — where you find yourself racing down this habitual highway without noticing you got on.
Negativity bias, where our attention automatically focuses on things that are going wrong rather than right, is a knee-jerk reaction that sets us off on the default highway. We bypass the positive or helpful things that are happening around us and turn to what’s wrong. We then store this information, ready to pull it up when we are dealing with similar situations or the same individual, instantly looking for evidence to validate these thoughts.
My clients regularly complain about their bosses criticizing what they do, how they focus on what they aren’t doing right rather than acknowledging what’s working well. One high-performing client was convinced their boss didn’t think they measured up to the job, always pointing out where they needed to develop, and was surprised when their boss told them they were being put forward for a promotion. When this was raised in a meeting with their boss, the boss said they assumed the client knew where they excelled and believed they were being helpful by pointing out the shortcomings.
Internal/External Reference Point
The reference point we turn to in order to determine whether we’ve done a good job, made the right decision or taken the appropriate action plays a huge part in the ease we have in acknowledging and praising others. People who are internally referenced look inside for these conclusions; they have an internal barometer that provides this information. People who are externally referenced look to their boss, their peers or others to ascertain how they are doing.
A client's reaction reinforced this after sharing they'd gotten the promotion we'd been working on. “Don’t get me wrong," they said, "the promotion is great, but finally they recognize the hard work [I’ve] been putting in and the impact my team is having. That meant more to me than the promotion.”
So how do we get around this glitch in the wiring system?
Here are four strategies to help build the acknowledgment and praise muscle.
1. Check your frame of reference.
Do you have an internal barometer or frame of reference that just "tells" you that you did a great job? If you do, be aware that the habit of giving feedback and recognition may take practice. This may be something that doesn't necessarily come naturally to you; given the fact that you don't look for external feedback as often, you may not think to give it.
Start with simple affirmations, like “I notice that you’re committed to the best interests of the team and appreciate your efforts" or “I notice the quality of our work really matters to you and appreciate that you’ve got this.”
On the other hand, do you yourself look for external feedback to decide how you are doing? If so, consider whether or not you’ve been providing encouragement and praise to your team. You may choose to develop or reinforce your own internal barometer to validate how you are doing so that you aren't as reliant on external feedback.
2. Ask your team members how they want to be recognized.
At the next one-on-one meeting, find out from your team members how they would like you to acknowledge their efforts or the good work they are doing. Ask. Don’t guess. If you're like many of my internally referenced clients, be aware that you might be triggered when your direct reports say they want your feedback. As one client said, “But that’s what they get paid for!” Just remember that for many, getting approval feels good — it's highly motivating and rewarding, it builds trust and promotes a growth mindset. It’s a win-win.
3. Schedule it — make it a habit.
Put a daily reminder in your calendar or a visual cue, like a colored dot or Post-It on your computer. Get into the habit of telling your team members how you value their contribution, how it’s impacting your projects and how it's benefitting the team. As a client reported a few weeks after introducing this habit, “I noticed their willingness to do even more work since I started!”
4. Encourage the practice in the team.
Allocate five or ten minutes in your team meetings for shout-outs. Get the team to pay attention to their colleagues’ small wins and successes and share them at team meetings. You may discover things you weren't aware of, it will build trust within your team and foster a culture where people collaborate even more. Your millennials may even feel compelled to stick around longer.
What have you got to lose? Like any habit, it gets easier the more you do it. And remember, what gets reinforced, gets repeated — more reason to take the time to acknowledge and praise great work.