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Motivating Motivation: from reward to recognition

5 minute read

To put in practice the socially mediated model of motivation, we need to focus on the distinction between reward and recognition, and put an emphasis on the latter. Plenty has been written about reward systems (i.e. bonuses, perks, gifts, shares, etc) but I personally prefer an approach that uses extrinsic motivation as little as possible, as in my experience it has more negative than positive effects in the mid-to-long term when organizations try to make use of it.

Reward and Recognition

First of all, we need to start distinguishing clearly reward from recognition. What defines them in practice? Here’s an overview:

It’s about receiving something tangible for work completed.It’s about getting meaningfully noticed by someone.

This distinction is particularly important, mostly because they are two different concepts that are often overlapped in these discussions — and we need to understand how different they are.

Recognition is something we can act on at any level in the organization, from small teams to large divisions. It relies on the individual skills not just of the leads, but also of all the people in the team. It’s about humans. It’s connected with the social locus.

Reward is directly connected with the external locus, thus primarily extrinsic motivation. It can be any kind of framework: from bonuses to salary increases to gifts to perks and so on. Its harmful effects are tricky to recognize in most cases because the negatives appear in the long term, they are perceived often as “extras”, and they connect directly with the illusion of meritocracy.

Dimensions of Recognition

It’s very important we acknowledge how diverse people are in the way they’d like to be recognized.

To provide a mental model that allows people to learn and improve their recognition skills, we can have a model constituted by 5 elements:

  • How to give recognition:
    • Visibility
    • Frequency
    • Source
  • Why is recognition given:
    • Meaningful
    • Sincere

Frequency — it can be daily, weekly, monthly, or any frequency that happens to be effective. It shouldn’t be a fixed rhythm: the best recognition is usually the one done closely to the action being praised, in a timely fashion.

Visibility — this is the spectrum from private to public. This can vary a lot: from a private and discrete DM, to a mention in a team chat, to a more open praise in a live call with the team, to being mentioned in the division monthly call, to a company-wide notable mention. Explore what options are available to you, and even if you aren’t in the position to make the call yourself, you can always ask your boss to do it. Be also careful that different people appreciate different kinds of visibility: while rarely people prefer completely private recognition, not everyone consider “better” a wider audience.

Source — being praised by a peer is very different from being praised by the boss or even the CEO. Different kinds of action, and different kinds of impact, will be more suited for a different source. I sometimes ask people to give public recognition to someone because I know that a specific person will be more suited to do it.

Meaningful — empty praise can be more damaging than no praise. Good recognition is always meaningful: it’s about highlighting a good action, confirming why it was good for them and for the organization. It doesn’t just show that the person is valued, but also provides positive feedback.

Sincere — the person delivering the message needs to really think that what is being said is true. Doing recognition on a schedule, or part of a process of some kind, or phrasing it in a way that doesn’t feel sincere and human, will make it ineffective.

In practice

How can we then improve our ability to give proper recognition making it meaningful and sincere? We can improve our own approach for sure, trying to get better on the 5 elements above. The very first step is however to notice. It’s very easy to not realize someone has done something good, sometimes just because something done well just flows, while a problem will create a visible bump. Noticing positive things is harder!

We thus have two steps we can get better at: noticing and giving.

Practice noticing when someone you work with is doing something good, or something beyond the expectations. Pause for a moment, for example daily, and give it a thought.Make sure you know how people like to be recognized, ask if you don’t know, and try to give acknowledgement of good work in the best possible way.

To everyone in the team:

  • Make sure you recognize good work done by people both inside and outside your team. If you’re not sure they will appreciate public acknowledgement, a private message is a good starting point.
  • If you notice someone doing something particularly good, mention it to your boss — or if it’s in a different team, their boss. Example: “Person X was really key in getting this project shipped, helped the team to organize, and made sure nothing fell out of sight. They prefer private feedback and a public credit reference as far as I know”.

To managers and leads:

  • Give credit.
  • Make sure you know what’s expected by the people in your team across all their roles, and how to identify when they exceed that.
  • Make sure you are aware of the way everyone in your team prefers being recognized for good work. Doesn’t have anything too formal, just try to get a sense of it.
  • When you notice high performance work, make sure to find a way to have that acknowledged: public, private, and which form it can take.
  • Make sure you communicate to your boss when someone has done high performance work. This can be done as often as needed, and that it’s possibly also included in any HR report if your organizations have them.
  • Consider (co-)writing a case study of the work done, highlighting the people involved.

To managers of managers:

  • When you notice high performance work, make a point to highlight it and give people credit — in a way that is comfortable to them.
  • Make sure the people working with you know and practice highlighting good people back to you outside other formal channel you have in your organization.

Of course, this won’t stop here. It’s just the starting point. Given there’s a lot of variability of preferences between individuals, it’s always better to check in with the people you work with.

Try to follow the criteria above — visibility, frequency, source, meaningful, sincere — and explore how to improve in each one of them. Try also to foster a culture of good feedback in your own team, good positive reinforcement can go a long way.