The Awesome Power of Positive Recognition

I’ve never met anyone who said they left a company because they were recognized too much.

Coach John Cassis remembers 13-year old Brad who was cut from the soccer team. Brad was crushed. He felt like a loser, and several kids laughed at him.

Then Brad learned about “The Super Sweat” being held in Cincinnati, a workout for world hunger. The kids were to find sponsors who would pay them for doing sit ups, pushups, and jumping jacks … with all the money going to a good cause.

Two days before the event, Brad told Coach Cassis that he could do 250 sit ups … without stopping. So the coach signed him up for the sit-up event.

As “The Super Sweat” progressed, various participants dropped out. They could only do so much.

But there was a cute little blonde girl sitting near Brad who just kept smiling at him. Other people would wander by and say, “Brad, come on. You can do it. Go, Brad, go.” And Brad kept doing the sit ups, one after another, as other people thought the poor little kid would burn himself out.

Not Brad. Even though he was the kid who was cut from the soccer team, who was emotionally crushed a few days before, who could only do 250 sit ups by himself, he was now doing a great deal more. In fact, with the encouragement of his friends, Brad set a national record that day when he did 3500 sit ups without stopping. The audience cheered, and everyone learned the AWESOME power of positive recognition.

And it is an AWESOME power. Gary Kusin, the former CEO of FedEx Kinko’s Office and Printer Services, puts it this way. He says, “Saying ‘Thank you, great job. I appreciate you and what you’re doing for the company’ is the most important thing a leader can do.”

Tom Malone, the president of Milliken & Company echoed his sentiments. Malone said, “I played football in college. I wasn’t very big — only 150 pounds — and I wasn’t very good. I got hurt a lot. I broke my arm once, my neck once, and my nose six times. When I tell people about it, they always ask me, ‘Why did you keep doing it?’ For the longest time I had no answer. Then one day it hit me. If there hadn’t been any fans in the stands cheering me on — my family and friends — I wouldn’t have kept on playing and trying so hard. But they were there, so I did.”

Yes, the AWESOME power of recognition. And yet, as an author, speaker, and consultant, I notice that some people just don’t get it. In fact, the most frequent complaint I hear in organizations is “you can do a hundred things right and not hear a darn thing about it.” Obviously, there’s a big gap between KNOWING about recognition and actually GIVING it.

Edward Reede, who serves in the US Army, told me about that. He wrote, “Several months after I was due my 25-year pin, the secretary finally asked me if I just wanted to take it from her, since she doubted the director would ever get around to presenting it.” Now that’s pathetic and inexcusable — but all too common.

I suppose that’s why some employees say they give 100% at work. They give 12% Monday, 23% Tuesday, 40% Wednesday, 20% Thursday, and 5% Friday.

So let’s get down to brass tacks here. If positive recognition has the awesome power to motivate the best in others, how can and should you recognize others? Try the following.

=> 1. Establish clear standards of excellence.

In James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s book, “Encouraging The Heart,” they insist on setting standards. Every employee must know what you mean by excellent behavior that is worthy of recognition.

And every employee must know you expect these standards will be met. If they think you’ll settle for less, then that’s what you’ll get. But when they know you expect their very best, you’ll get their very best.

=> 2. Spend more time with your team mates.

Talk to them. Listen to them. Observe them and their work. If you isolate yourself in your office, you’ll miss some of your best chances to offer on-the-spot recognition. Besides that, if you’re somewhat distant, your recognition loses some of its credibility.

=> 3. Tailor your recognition.

That’s part of the reason I recommend #2 above. When you spend time with your team mates and learn their likes and dislikes, you’ll find out what kinds of recognition mean the most to each person.

In fact, if you don’t tailor or personalize your recognition, it could backfire on you. For example, if you give tickets to a sporting event to an individual who doesn’t like sports, the recipient will not be impressed.

=> 4. Compliment one thing at a time.

Over-complimenting weakens the impact of your recognition. Avoid such run-on compliments as, “You did such a great job with that customer. You’re always so organized. You project a very positive attitude. And you look great.”

Instead, focus on one thing. When you do that, chances are a great deal better the other person will remember what you say.

That’s what one third-grade teacher did when she tried to explain the importance of penmanship. She said, “If you can’t write your name, when you grow up you’ll have to pay cash for everything.”

=> 5. Be specific.

Rather than say, “You’re doing a good job,” focus on something specific in the other person’s performance. Try something like, “I appreciate the fact you kept checking and re-checking the XYZ figures until they came out exactly right.”

=> 6. Let your compliments stand alone.

Note these two words “stand alone.” Some people give a compliment right before they criticize the other person or ask for a favor. That’s manipulative. But it’s also ineffective. It robs your recognition of the motivational power it was intended to have.

Just make the compliment. You can talk about the other issues at another time. That’s what Fred Lewis learned and reported in “Reader’s Digest.” Fred was trying to nail some plywood, but for every direct hit on the nail, he missed four times. Nevertheless, his on-looking engineer friend was very supportive. He encouraged, “Atta boy Fred. You’ve got it surrounded.”

=> 7. Celebrate publicly.

Some people get a little worried about the impact of public recognition. After all, it may cause resentment or jealousy amongst the other team members.

But that won’t happen IF the employees see you and the recognition … as genuine … instead of using the recognition as an underhanded way to criticize the other members of the team. Besides that, public recognition shows others which achievements earn praise so they can emulate them.

And there are lots of ways you can celebrate publicly. One might be as simple as passing along compliments you’ve heard. If, for example, a coworker praises the work of someone else you manage, make sure you relay the compliment to that person. Or forward copies of complimentary letters to the appropriate people.

The possibilities are endless. You could acknowledge a team member in a staff meeting. You could start a column in your company newsletter dedicated to employee recognition. You could tell the employee’s customers about the recognition he/ she received.

Or you could even name a day in someone’s honor. And you could play this up as much as you want. You could have a small ceremony and invite the recipient’s significant other to the ceremony. The ceremony might include a cake or a meal, a gift, a certificate, or even some oral or written testimonials from internal or external customers that talk about this employee’s exceptional work.

In fact, stories can be the most powerful part of the ceremony. So tell stories as to how and why the recipient earned the praise. It will make the event more memorable and help others relate to the recipient. Better yet, the stories reinforce your standards of excellence … that were outlined in point #1.

So there you have it. When it comes to motivating the best in others, you can get a certain amount of motivation by simply giving the other person a paycheck. But you can get a lot more motivation by giving appropriate, effective praise along with that paycheck.

It’s kind of like the man being led off to the electric chair. His cell mates shouted out, “Hey, more power to ya.” Recognition gives more power to the other person.

Action:  Think of five coworkers who deserve some honest recognition from you. And think of how you could tailor your recognition to fit each person rather than give the same thing to everyone.