Is ‘sorry’ really amongst the hardest words to say? It might be for Elton John, but for many managers, feedback and meaningful recognition and praise aren’t far behind.
And yes, that is a sweeping generalisation. I make it because there is still truth in it. I likely have met your boss, or someone just like them, over the past 20 years. For some managers, authentic, meaningful recognition and praise is easily given and part of how they operate. For others, it is a genuinely difficult thing for them to give to members of their team. Yes, there is an increasing number of managers who have moved away from a traditional management mindset of “why should I praise them for doing their job? That’s what they’re paid for!”, or worse, “treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen”. And there still is a ways to go.
We know from neuroscience research that the release of the hormone oxytocin triggers loyalty, trust, empathy and generosity in the workplace. We also know that the release of oxytocin is stimulated by a sense of higher purpose and trust.
Paul Zak, a professor of neuroeconomics (See https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust), has identified eight behaviours which create higher levels of trust. The most powerful one is recognition. So if you want to develop only one new leadership habit to boost your team, make it recognition.
For recognition to be most effective, you need to give specific feedback, immediately after a goal has been met. And you need to recognise good work in a way so that your praised team member experiences it as tangible, unexpected, personal, and, whenever possible, public.
In their search to uncover what the most talented, productive employees need from the workplace and how to attract, focus, and keep them, Gallup’s 25 year research project identified 12 questions that matter. Our blog of 24 November explored all 12 Questions, today I want to pick out one of my favourites, Question 4:
In the last 7 days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
This question is very specific, and you want your employees to answer “agree” or “strongly agree”. It doesn’t ask: “In the last year …”, “In the last quarter …”, “In the last month …, or even “In the last week, did you receive recognition or praise for good work? Curious. How come?
Well, research has discovered that receiving praise releases the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is part of nature’s reward system, a way of encouraging the same behaviour in the future.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that “’go-getters’ who are willing to work hard for rewards had higher release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in areas of the brain known to play an important role in reward and motivation.”
So, back to the ‘In the last 7 days’ bit. What do you think is the response of a typical manager when they hear this frequency? I have often heard: “What, once a week?” or “How am I going to get time to catch people doing things right all the time?” or “you must be joking…”.
Research suggests that our internal reward system makes people want to repeat things that the organization needs, IF “doing the right thing earns them recognition.” And if the recognition has been recent: 7 days is the time of a natural a cycle within the brain.
If we don’t get our “fix” of dopamine in time and at work, we will get it elsewhere.
We will find activities which make us feel good. Does that sound like someone on your your team: high achiever outside of work, acceptable or satisfactory achievement in work? I wonder where they are getting their dopamine fix from? Likely from the place where they are expending their best energy and creativity.
Here is another reason why frequency is important:
A negativity bias is prevalent in human beings.
This bias has kept us alive, by always being on the lookout for danger, but it also makes it hard to constantly find the good when the bad seems more obvious. We can build the muscle of catching people doing things right, but it takes intention and conscious practice. And we know from the work of John Gottman, that a ratio of five positive interactions to one negative interaction is required for relationships to be successful in the long run. Remember the old adage:
People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.
This is the emotional and psychological reality that it articulates.
Bottom line, here’s what you need to ask yourself about your team:
Is anyone on my team in imminent danger of receiving excessive recognition and praise?
Unless you are answering yes for everyone on your team, dial up the recognition and praise and build some momentum.