It’s bad enough that we have to deal with the occasional “social obligation” from our friends and family. You know what I mean—attending a school play or buying girl scout cookies you won’t eat, or helping out with some activity you’d never do on your own. These obligations are defined by the feeling that you would rather be doing something else. We do these things because we love these people and are therefore willing to (briefly) put their needs above our own, resentment-free.
On top of that, the boss decides they want to boost morale—throw a party for themselves after work, invite everyone to their favorite charity’s event for a “team building”, declare a “Hawaiian Shirt Day”, etc. Sure these things sound fun to some people, but what if you just want to go home to see your family after work, support your own charities, or wear what you want because Hawaiian prints look hideous on you? Participating in these social obligations at work is forced fun--and that my friends, is no fun at all. Do you really love your employer that much?
Here’s the thing—most organizations do morale boosters as a form of recognition. It is a way of saying, “job well done,” or “we care about you”. In return, the company hopes to improve the climate and motivate its employees. It’s efficient because it’s given to everyone at the same time in one action. What’s often forgotten is that these things are also a form of communication. As with all communication, there is sometimes a difference between intended impact and reaction. The misalignment happens when not enough thought is put into the communication. Combine that with the “one size fits all” approach and you risk missing your mark.
I am not intending to promote ungratefulness in employees. Most people can sense good intent (misguided as it can sometimes be), so they gamely participate in forced fun out of kindness and/or obligation. Note to Management: In some respects, they are demonstrating loyalty by doing this. However, recognition (and all that goes with it) can be a very powerful management tool and culture builder. This is less about what’s wrong with recognition, and more about how to leverage it, DOWE style. (Check out the rest of the website to learn about the Design of Work Experience).
Here are some tips:
1. Understand Recognition as a Concept. Who’s it for? What is it? Where is it appropriate? Why is recognition important and how do we use it? Recognition doesn’t have to be related to money, nor need to be formal. It does need to be delivered with positive impact. It’s not a check box activity, or something you put together half-heartedly. Like any poorly designed product or service, the customers (in this case the employees) won’t buy it. If you “get” recognition, you’ll know how to use it. Books like research-based The Carrot Principle and Globoforce’s blog provide a great overview and give an opportunity to reflect on your own organization’s recognition practices.
2. Base your design on your context. Whether recognition in your organization is a complex formal program, a simple set of criteria or behaviors, or a collective of morale boosters, you should ensure alignment with the culture and behavior you are trying to create or reinforce. Use the appropriate vehicles to ensure your intended message hits home. Make it a tool accessible to all (not just those at the very top), so everyone can participate in both giving and receiving recognition. Doing so will ensure that it sticks. Remember that you are designing how your employees experience recognition at your workplace, so it is critical to design your program and actions around that perspective. As with all employee experiences, it should be purposeful and meaningful. (Need help with this?) You should be able to answer these questions: What are the unmeet needs of the individuals and the business when it comes to recognition, and how will we satisfy them? How do you customize a consistent message according individual preferences?
A client told me a story of how a former employer totally screwed up recognition for her hard work. She took on an interim leadership role (on top of her day job) for an extended period of time. Not that she was expecting anything, but no simple “thank you” ever came from it, especially from those she helped as an interim. It was the new leader who came at the behest of others to give her a small cash reward. She was offended. That “thank you” was not tied to a message around why she was receiving it, and it came from the wrong person as a “let’s-get-this-over-with” exchange. Needless to say, she is no longer with that company. Clearly the leadership at her organization did not take the time to consider the individual who was receiving the reward. The result? The complete opposite effect. They might have done better doing nothing at all instead of offending her. So please, take a moment to ensure an exceptional experience for any recognition, small or large, individual or group.
3. Connect it with motivation, communication, and culture. Recognition as an untethered activity becomes a blip on the screen. However, integrating the way an organization chooses to motivate, reward, and communicate reinforces key messages and actions critical to building the company’s unique culture and healthy environment. In fact, while you are at it, a good practice would be to integrate all your people strategies and activities to ensure they are consistent and reinforce one another. If you are planning a morale booster activity or event, do people know why? How does it tie back to what makes the company great?
One of the best recognition programs I experienced was integrated with the budgeting process, the “leader behaviors”, the performance management program, and a slew of other programs and strategies the company set up to drive the business. Every year a percentage of the budget was set aside for recognition, thus reinforcing its intent, purpose, and value/importance. Criteria was established to ensure consistency. Rewards were given in the form of points, not money. Those points were kept in a system that allowed the employee to purchase experiences or products of their choice. Not only did this suit the individual employee’s preferences, but it also made the reward memorable. Even now, almost 10 years later, I remember what work I accomplished to receive my points, and what those points purchased: Our first grill for our first home with a backyard, our first GPS after moving to a new state, and my husband’s first professional camera. Other pluses of the program: You didn’t need a budget ($$) to recognize someone. Recognition could be given by anyone in the company to anyone else as long as they were able to meet the criteria and communicate why. It was tracked along with all the other recognitions earned by the employee so managers could see their great work. Most importantly, the recognition program at that company drove its business agenda and culture change.
What about those morale boosters? In that company setting, they were up to the individual teams and units to organize on their own with the company’s support. Self-management of work fun by well-deserving employees ensures positive impact and promotes empowerment. So go ahead, give recognition the attention it deserves. Forced fun might actually be fun one day.
Resources: octanner.com, globoforce.com, baudville.com