A reader writes:
I work in a team of 24 within a large organization and we measure our employee engagement using the Gallup questionnaire. One of the questions our team scored lower on was "In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work," and as a group, we decided this was one area we’d like to focus on to improve.
We know we need to tackle this from several angles – including recognition from the leadership team as well as from our peers. Strongly believing in the power of recognition, along with having previously led a small team of 7 where we saw fabulous results after introducing a peer recognition program, I offered to help put a program together with one of the leadership team.
After research and asking others what had worked for them, our little project team decided on a program based on Tom Rath and Donald Clifton’s book “How Full is your Bucket?” This was also the basis of what I’d introduced in my last role. In a nutshell, we’ll be giving the team information and resources to provide positive feedback – both verbal and written – to their colleagues (and hopefully they’ll see the benefits in a wider context too). We’ve presented it to the leadership team and they are all behind it.
Here’s my problem. Many of my colleagues are very analytical (we work in a part of the business where chunks of our work are very data driven) and they see things like this as being "fluffy." One of my colleagues overheard me talking on the phone with the other person on the project, speaking excitedly about the cool red tin buckets we’d bought for each person to have on their desk (to collect their positive feedback "drops’'). He said, “You’re really going to hack a lot people off, you know.” The idea of personalizing his bucket (even just writing his name on it) leaves him cold. He said “Well, as long as I can go and do something else while you do that.” He wasn’t being intentionally nasty, he just felt it was a waste of time; he’d rather “focus on work than soft and fluffy stuff.”
I know he’s not the only person who may be cynical about it. In the presentation I’ve prepared, I’ve included lots of research facts and supporting data in the hope of meeting their "show me the data" requirements. Some of the team can be pretty brutal with their feedback (and we’ll be gathering feedback on my presentation) – so I’d really appreciate any other suggestions you and others reading this may have in order to appeal to the wide variety of personality types in our team and hopefully win them over enough to at least give it a try.
You have either come to the right person or the wrong person, depending on your perspective, because I'm someone who would consider this too fluffy too, and I work in a office that would almost definitely greet this with cringes, so I'm familiar with what it sounds like you might be facing.
That said, I'm a huge proponent of finding ways to increase positive recognition when you're hearing there's not enough of it, and I think it's great that you're looking for ways to do it. Often when the culture is one where praise-giving isn't coming naturally, the only way to change that is to figure out ways to formalize recognition a bit, until it becomes a more natural part of culture.
But... I think you have to do it in a way that fits the people you're working with. The program you're describing sounds like it would work well in some environments and be greeted with derision in others. If yours is more the latter, I don't think you'll have success pushing it on people for whom that kind of thing chafes. Although there's data showing the program is effective, you've got to have a reasonably receptive audience. (I'm guessing at that; maybe the program shows it works even with anti-fluffy types, but I'm skeptical; I think in some cases you could even end up lowering morale with a program that's at odds with employees' personalities.)
My hunch is that you'd have better luck asking employees for their own ideas on how to tackle the problem. If no one volunteers ideas (and they might not, especially if they're not naturally positive-feedback-givers to begin with), then go with the most low-key approach you can find ... which probably means no red buckets on people's desks, if a sizable portion of your team isn't into it.
I actually tackled this myself in my own workplace a while ago. Just urging managers to give more positive feedback hadn't worked, so I decided to try formalizing it a bit more than that ... but I knew that formalized programs would produce eye rolls. So I tried to go as low-key as I possibly could. I gave each manager a small budget for employee recognition and told them they had a certain number of awards they could give for great work per year. The awards are super-low-key: an all-staff email describing the person's achievement plus a small gift of something the person would like (an amazon.com gift certificate, a bottle of scotch, whatever the person is into). The results have been fascinating: this aspect of our culture has actually changed. Managers are offering praise more frequently and more publicly, and people are reporting they feel their hard work is more appreciated. (And yet, even as low-key as this is, we still have people who think it's too cheesy.)
I'm not saying that approach would be right for your office, but I do think you've got to find the approach that fits the group of people you're dealing with. Figure out what they would really appreciate, so that whatever you end up with feels comfortable to them, not contrived.
Obligatory reminder: Of course, the most important thing is to ensure that you're recognizing people in ways that really matter -- with strong evaluations, great raises, good management, and new challenges (if they want them).