Be Transparent On What Performance You’ll Recognize

Olympic Medal StandI may have been one of the last leaders in America to have this particular insight, but it finally dawned on me that a lot of the people on my team were working extremely hard – and achieving remarkable things – all in expectation of later receiving recognition.

My epiphany:  When I took time to formally acknowledge and thank my employees for their committed efforts and achievements, they could feel the work they did mattered.  They were certain I understood how much of themselves they had put into getting great results – and thrived in being appreciated.

Recognition for them, therefore, was an extremely powerful incentive.

Once I fully understood this, I immediately made some permanent changes to my leadership practices.  First, I “institutionalized” recognition by delivering it at the same place, time and manner every month.  I did this so my employees would trust that their extraordinary efforts and accomplishments never would be overlooked.  The surest way to dim ambition and initiative, I realized, would be to let someone work especially hard, meet my expectations, and then not give them the reward that’s inherent in recognition.

Another change I made was to pre-communicate what specific performance would earn my acknowledgment.   While I reserved the right to praise any and all great work and achievements, I wanted my employees to know which specific goals were most important to me and would always earn my applause, esteem and appreciation when they were met.

By doing this, I effectively told my team, “If you achieve these targets, I will never let you down by not honoring you.”  Thus, when my employees dug deep to meet challenging assignments, they could envision our next meeting where they would receive their hard-earned tribute!

I’m a strong advocate for ensuring employees know what specific performance a leader will recognize and that there’s never any ambiguity in employee minds.   Here’s a quick story which illustrates how ambiguity can be really de-motivating.

I once had a boss who created an Olympic themed recognition program for his team of eight regional managers.  He bought gold, silver and bronze medals – along with a three-tiered stand – and told us that the top three performing regional managers every month would be honored in a traditional Olympic ceremony.

With such a thoughtful idea, my boss’s heart was clearly in the right place and he gets high marks for making his program fun and special.   But his plan had one big problem.

He never disclosed how the winners would be determined.

Yes, we knew our most important goals and worked hard to achieve them.  But our boss assigned weights to each goal making some more important than others.  Since we had no idea what calculations he was using, we never knew until his meetings whether our results were good enough to win.

By complicating the process, my boss inadvertently diminished the effectiveness of his own program.  None of us liked to be surprised by the results – we preferred to do the work that would ensure success.   And we often felt discouraged when our results were independently strong but failed to be acknowledged.

My best advice: be as transparent about what performance will get recognized and how you will calculate results.   Your employees will reach for new heights when they implicitly trust it will always win your acknowledgment and praise.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.