Recognition: The Motivational Compass

I’ve discussed removing obstacles and providing feedback. I want to talk about one other way to feed motivation, one that walks a line between intrinsic and external: recognition.

Lack of recognition is a surefire way to kill motivation. In fact, if you really want to destroy someone’s will to work, don’t criticize their efforts–just ignore them. And yet, many leaders seem to operate on the assumption that if something is good it will be self-evident, and end up seeming to ignore the fruitful efforts of those around them.

In American business, we’ve mythologized disruptors who plough forward with complete disregard for the praise or derision of others: Steve Jobs is our Hercules, Elon Musk our Perseus. But this mythology ignores the reality of the human social identity in favor of the fraction of a percent who accomplish radical individual change. It also ignores the reality that the vast majority of what happens in the world–even the vast majority of change–is a product of those who are not disruptors. We idolize the individual who makes an enormous change while downplaying the collective power of millions who make small changes.

And for those millions making small changes, recognition is completely critical. It’s a social compass: we want to know that what we are doing is useful to those around us, to guide our further efforts to be more useful. In ancient times, it was largely self-evident: if I shoe a horse or patch a tent, I can see how it’s useful to my customer. Today, business is so abstract that often the only indication of whether something is useful is the explicit response of the people around us–particularly in remote work environments (e.g., working from home).

I feel recognized when someone to whom I’ve given authority to value my work has evaluated it, found it valuable, and expressed that value back to me.

I’ll use this definition as a jumping off point to discuss the important parts of recognition:

  • someone: Unlike feedback, which can be automated, recognition is an essentially human, social act. The value of recognition is that the phenomenon exists in another person’s consciousness. Consider even the word, “recognition:” making my experience (of another person’s contribution) conscious. Unless the phenomenon exists in human consciousness and is expressed sincerely out of experience, it is false and doesn’t serve the purpose of recognition as a motivator.
  • to whom I’ve given authority: Authority doesn’t necessarily fall along any chain of command. I make the decision to give authority based on my own values. Every action has an intended impact and an intended target, whether these things are conscious or unconscious, deliberate or haphazard. The target of that impact is usually the one to whom I give authority. (This is true because of the converse: the one to whom I give authority is usually the target of my intended impact, even if there’s a more obvious impact on someone else.) However, we may also give authority to others we respect.
  • authority to value my work: The particular type of authority is contextual. The work I’ve done is intended for a specific purpose. To that end, the person who has authority in each instance will depend on the work that is being valued.
  • has evaluated it: Evaluation is a conscious act–it’s not simply taking and using the object, but specifically noting its features and overall usefulness. This is the act of recognition: acknowledging one’s own experience of the work and bringing it to consciousness.
  • found it valuable: Recognizing that someone’s work is useless isn’t helpful when trying to encourage motivation. Even if the work turns out not to be valuable for the specific purpose you intended, try to recognize what is valuable about it. If it’s utterly irredeemable, then the situation may call for feedback but not recognition.
  • expressed that value: These last two steps can sometimes get lost in the act of recognition, when I recognize that something is valuable to me and then go out and use it, while forgetting to report its value. The danger is in believing that recognizing value is sufficient and then keeping that recognition to myself. I not only have to recognize value, but express the value. Expressing the value as I perceive it is enough; even if the work is part of some larger scheme, it doesn’t need to accomplish its ultimate ends to be successful.
  • back to me: This is another point that can be overlooked. Expressing the value you perceive to someone else is great, and can lead to great things. But that’s not the purpose of recognition. Recognition reflects my perception of value back to the person who created that value.

Has this post been valuable to you? What was valuable about it? How could it be more valuable?

Feedback: The Motivation Superpower

Intrinsic motivation, left to itself, can be unfocused. This is especially true across an entire organization. There are ways to improve focus through establishing shared values and getting everyone to tell the same story, but there are also mechanisms for improving the focus of an individual’s intrinsic motivations. Few of these mechanisms are more fundamental than feedback.

I don’t mean peer review forms or a semi-annual sit-down with the boss. I mean simple feedback loops that work throughout every day.

Simple feedback works like this: A subject takes an action, there is a reaction, and information about the reaction is returned to the subject, who can then use the information about the reaction to modify her activity. I touch a hot kettle, the kettle burns my fingers, my nerves send information about my fingers burning back to me, and I pull my hand away. This is how fundamental feedback is. But because so much business in today’s world is abstract, we have to construct feedback loops deliberately rather than expecting feedback to happen on its own.

Lack of feedback can quickly erode motivation. And the more entrepreneurial or “self-starting” a position is, the more important feedback is to the person in that position. Feedback is your sight, like a bat echoing its own songs to understand the contour of the world around it. If you don’t hear an echo, how do you know what to do?

Yet for how fundamental it is, it’s surprisingly easy to forget. And then it’s surprisingly easy to chalk up motivation problems to lack of incentives, or poor leadership, or other priorities getting in the way, when really the people around you are lost in a world that doesn’t echo back at them.

How can you create effective feedback?

Feedback must be immediate, contextual, and apparent. Feedback is a behavioral stimulus–it has to fit both the time and the context of the action that caused it, and it has to be clear and concise in order to reveal information that’s useful for subsequent action.

This doesn’t mean feedback is always a result of things that are done–sometimes it’s the result of something that’s undone. Networking sites like LinkedIn and dating sites like Match.com tend to provide feedback in the form of a percentage completion bar to let you know how “complete” your profile is. Of course, your profile on these sites is as complete as you want it to be–but by creating this bit of feedback, such sites are able to encourage participants to improve the quality of information about themselves without offering any incentive other than having a “more complete” profile.

Feedback is a leadership superpower because all feedback is either grounded on some fixed point (values), directed toward some fixed point (objectives), or both. Thus continuous feedback is a way of aligning the efforts of a team toward the same values and objectives. And if you focus on those ends–values and objectives–when providing feedback, you can effectively avoid micromanagement while getting results that both satisfy your goals and represent your team.

Sometimes as a leader, I may have to manufacture feedback. This may require a shift in perspective: rather than believing there’s no feedback available because something is tied up in political limbo, I may need to provide feedback on the work itself–its quality, its relevance, etc. My team member will be able to take that feedback and apply it to other efforts. As a consequence, they’ll also be creating value that better fits my own vision, since it’s directed toward my feedback.

I may also have to generate feedback for myself. One way to go about this is to establish clear expectations with every completed action. After completing something for which I expect feedback–which does not necessarily mean something that requires “notes” or changes–I can mention the kind of information I want to receive and the date by which I would like to receive it, and then follow-up after the appointed time has passed. Remember this information should be immediate (and contextual), concise, and oriented toward fulfilling values and accomplishing objectives; it should as a result be quick and easy for the requested party to provide.

Proper application of feedback can, on its own, stimulate a lot of action without the addition of artificial incentives. It’s the first step in turning intrinsic motivation outward, but it doesn’t yet offer an actual incentive–merely a reflection. The information reflected back at us also implies specific objectives–something that someone outside of us is looking to find, and therefore something we can work specifically to improve, which we do if we have the intrinsic desire to create something useful for another person. Giving feedback without tying it to any extrinsic reward is the second level of motivational strategy.

What are some effective ways you’ve found to provide feedback to others? What ways have you learned to solicit useful feedback from others?

Are You Destroying Your Motivation?

In traditional economics, motivation is simple: People want stuff. The amount of stuff they want is unlimited, therefore if you want people to do something you give them more stuff, and they will do it for you. Threaten to take away stuff, and they will avoid doing whatever would cause their stuff to be taken away.

The emerging field of behavioral economics takes a more holistic (and realistic) understanding of motivation: Sometimes people don’t want stuff. Sometimes people do things that don’t help them get more stuff. And there are some things you can’t convince people to do no matter how much stuff you give them.

This is critically important to the sudden popularity of gamification. Gamification is a way of creating incentives. But many people have attempted to create incentives based on the assumption that the only two motivators are pain and gain. This approach seems to assume that human beings operate like machines: give us a directive and reasons to follow the directive, and we will.

This thinking is what caused behaviorists to discover the overjustification effect, which is dangerous can be permanently damaging. Dubner and Levitt give a perfect example in Freakonomics of an Israeli day care facility that wanted to discourage parents from arriving late to pick up their children and started charging for late pick-up. The result was that more parents arrived late. The fee for late pick-up had supplanted an intrinsic motivation (guilt over inconveniencing the day-care workers) with an extrinsic motivation (a small fee to compensate for that inconvenience). What’s more, when the fee was subsequently removed, the damage had been done: parents continued to see the late pick-up as a service, but now it was a service they were getting for free.

Businesses often take a similar simple-economics approach to dealing with their own people. Incentivize this, disincentivize that, counter-incentivize something that you’re making more difficult. Much of the bulk and complexity of large organizations can be traced back to complicated incentives and metrics.

So before you do anything, remove the obstacles.

It’s impossible to know whether sufficient intrinsic motivations are there if you’ve piled up a mountain of paperwork in front of them. Sometimes the barriers exist outside your organization, such as the ability to market a new service. If you want a particular activity to occur more often within your organization, start by identifying and removing the obstacles, and then step back. Adding incentives is dangerous and difficult to reverse, and can result in unexpected and undesirable behaviors. If you create a space for something to happen, and your people are aware that space exists, wait and see what comes to fill in that space.

Interlocking Shields: The Importance of Constructive Conflict

Any organization that’s trying to become more innovative has to adopt one universal management skill: constructive conflict.

Constructive conflict doesn’t mean conflict resolution. It means allowing conflict to happen, even encouraging it, and focusing it into a creative, constructive exercise.

Conflict is important because it challenges beliefs and assumptions. It reveals the limits of our vision and draws out feelings and opinions that need to be dealt with. Well-executed conflict can result in more robust ideas and more complete buy-in; it also prevents territorialism and resource allocation inefficiencies from people overstating their needs, and allows us to air grievances before they develop into grudges. For these reasons, conflict doesn’t go away in a good business environment.

Conflict occurs when people have different information, different values, or different needs; constructive conflict facilitates synthesis of these differences:

  • Synthesizing information allows decisions to proceed with a more holistic view.
  • Synthesizing values allows each stakeholder to understand other stakeholders’ concerns and determine whether they are important to the matter at hand.
  • Synthesizing needs helps make decisions and compromises that will benefit the business overall and not just the stakeholder acting on his or her own.

Conflict avoidance, on the other hand, short circuits innovation by preventing the interaction of diverse viewpoints and areas of knowledge. Providing a framework for conflict to happen makes collaboration possible. All the platforms and incentives and leadership messages trying to push collaboration can be sabotaged by not knowing how to create positive conflict.

Although constructive conflict is a skill, we can start by creating a solid foundation for conflict. This begins with shared purpose and shared values: if people are working toward the same end, resolving the conflict becomes a matter of how best to achieve that end instead of a contest of ends.

We can also more clearly define roles. This is a particular challenge for less-hierarchical organizations: a manager, for example, becomes a role rather than a position of absolute authority. Yet as I’ve discussed previously, “domain” is critical to the development of individuals. Defining and using domain in very clear-cut ways helps those involved in a conflict to understand the perspectives of one another, and reduces the scale of conflict to border disputes while eschewing hostile takeovers.

Finally, constructive conflict and trust feed into one another. If you have established trust, it will help to draw out conflict and create constructive outcomes. If you create successful conflicts, it will strengthen the bond of trust.

How to Use Your Diversity

We intuitively know there’s value in diversity: the Mission Impossible team, the A-Team, Ocean’s Eleven, the Guardians of the Galaxy.

But in business the tradition has been to focus on things that can be tabulated: years of experience, education level, predefined skill sets–and usually to fill the abstract concept of a “position.” In this context, “diversity” is a buzz word that means “someone who looks different”–different clothes, different rituals, different language–but someone who is still plugged into the same ways of thinking.

It’s not that such people don’t add diversity. But the value of their diversity is often suppressed in favor of the appearance of diversity. The game, while at the office at least, is conformity.

The value of diversity comes with different modes of thinking. Any given person can see a problem from multiple angles, but never from all angles. Having and utilizing real diversity, then, depends on being able to bring out the difference in perspective and put it to work in combination with other perspectives.

From a recruiting perspective, this means hiring to fill the blind spots. A blind spot is different from a role, and it behooves a manager to understand where blind spots may exist in a team.

From a management perspective, this means practicing constructive conflict. Constructive conflict is a way not only to allow but to encourage dissenting opinions in such a way that final solutions benefit from very different ideas.

Finally, it means management that is able to see the value in other perspectives. Much of the value of these perspectives may not be rational, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason behind them. Finding tools to judge these perspectives, and to incorporate them together, is critical to effective management of diverse teams.

One final point: Diversity of perspective must be unified by unity of purpose. Last week, I described founding myth in terms of shared origin, shared values, and shared destiny. These are critical to the development of a diverse community.

This One Neat Trick Made Alexander the Conqueror of the Known World

Alexander conquered the known world with a simple innovation. It didn’t require a complex new technology; we would call it a “process change.” Instead of giving men shields to protect themselves, the Greeks overlapped their shields to form an impenetrable barrier, a technique they called a “phalanx.”

In these phalanx formations, a soldier’s shield was (according to Gerard Butler) intended to cover himself and the man to his left. The success of the entire formation rested on each individual, but the responsibility of each individual extended to only one other person. It was a manageable, achievable, even simple goal. What’s more, each soldier was able to give up some of his own shield with the knowledge that the man beside him was shielding him in turn. (Unless you were on the far right–that guy was kinda screwed.)

I’m sure someone has taken this idea somewhere, slapped it on a posted and put the word “TEAMWORK” under it. But this isn’t just “teamwork.” “Teamwork” was taking down a mammoth thousands of years earlier. The phalanx was something a little different. Instead of being something abstract like “teamwork,” it was a very simple, practical invention based on two rules:

  1. Each man covers the next man’s weakness.
  2. Covering the man next to you is as important as covering yourself.

If you could apply this technique to a culture–the culture of your immediate team at work, or of your entire company, or of an entire nation–a culture of covering the person to your left–could that culture benefit as much from its resulting unity as an ancient Greek phalanx?

For it to work, there is a hiring issue and a management issue.

The hiring side depends upon hiring a diverse set of people–not just “diversity hiring,” but hiring people with very different perspectives and strengths within the context of the core set of skills necessary to a team. This requires complementing working skills (such as project planning) with social skills (such as empathy).

The management side depends upon horizontal management methods, which is to say peer management. Rather than being responsible only upward, I am also responsible sideways to and for one or more people. Their success is my success.

There are a few possible approaches that I have not personally had the chance to test or observe in a business environment. One is the “linked chain” approach that is seen in some less-formal organizations: Each individual reports to one peer and is reported to by another. (This is a way of placing responsibility for communication on one individual in the relationship; it doesn’t mean the reportee won’t also be asking for help from the reporter.) Instead of seeing these people as higher or lower in the hierarchy, they are peers who are responsible for one another. In a managed organization, the chain can be more effectively “linked” by pairing complementary skill sets, so that one’s strength can cover another’s weakness. By virtue of linking, additional skill sets can quickly be brought in by the rest of the team, especially on larger teams.

Have you had any experiences trying to develop “phalanx” structures in your organization? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

The Four Ways to Fail

What does it mean to fail well?

As I’ve discussed, it’s definitely more important than success. But it’s possible to fail badly. What does it mean to fail well?

Knowing how to fail is more important than knowing why you failed or why you succeeded. Knowing how to fail will transform your organization.

The worst way to fail is to lay blame and chop heads. This is a common reaction, but it is a reaction that is incongruous with failure. If someone sabotages your business, or if someone betrays you, it makes sense that you would cut them off before they do more damage, but cutting down someone who makes a sincere effort is counterproductive. Blaming and cutting people down will only sabotage future success without doing anything to change the current failure, and encourages a culture that hides mistakes out of fear rather than acknowledging and dealing with them.

The second-worst way to fail is to brush aside the failure and move forward as though it never happened. This is what people will do when they operate in an environment where failure is seen as unequivocally bad. Failure gets swept under the rug before it gets worse. If you frequently discover failures at the last minute or even after the fact–failures that were hidden–it means the people working for your business don’t feel safe to fail. The first step toward failing well is being allowed to fail at all.

The second-best way to fail is to acknowledge the failure as quickly as possible, assess the damage and the causes, and put into place an action plan to deal with the failure. Documenting the causes and circumstances of failure creates important data points for later improvement, an improvement that will likely become a big project of its own.

The best way to fail is to put into place a methodology that anticipates failure. It’s surprising how often failure is unexpected, which is to say we expect success and then deal with failure as it comes. Far better is to expect failure in the process of improving success. Establishing a methodology not just to take advantage of failure but to make it an integral part of your business is by far the best way to fail, and allows us to improve continuously without having to turn improvement into its own project.

Two side notes: There are, of course, types of failure that are outright dangerous, from design defects in automobile safety systems to errors in financial calculations that cause massive losses. For good reason, such things require redundancy, regulation, and testing to ensure they are safe.

And secondly: If failure happens to be unequivocally bad for your job, you’d better start looking into new careers, because you’re likely to be automated away.

This Is More Important Than Success

We have been told not to let our failures get us down, and many people believe this means we should put our failures behind us as quickly as possible and keep moving. We spend hours, days, months, examining successes and trying to emulate them and turn them into strategies.

But failing well is more important than success. Success is just success, and there’s not much more you can do; but failure is opportunity, and it will slip away if you don’t seize it.

When an effort has the result I intend, it can be for any combination of reasons, both within and beyond my control. But when I don’t get the result I’m looking for, it’s important for me to find out what I can about why I didn’t succeed, look for the variables I could have influenced, and at the very least try something different next time. If I move too quickly past my failures, I’m likely to repeat them; if I move too quickly past my successes, at worst I may forget to celebrate them. (Celebrating successes is important too–but we’ll get to that later.)

As you might have heard, the road to success is paved with failures. If you plan to succeed on a regular basis, you’ll need to learn how to pave.

Ignoring the importance of failing well doesn’t just mean repeating your mistakes. It also has an impact on your organization’s culture. Your employees tend to do less work at or above their level of competence for fear of doing it incorrectly, which means that higher-level employees and managers are left doing lower-level work. So much for “high-performance culture.”

Glossing over failures at the organization level also leads to poor communication at the individual level. If I’m trying to make the failures of my business disappear, should I really be surprised when an employee makes an enormous miscalculation and doesn’t tell me about it until the last minute? The more failure is accepted and dealt with properly, the less stigma will be attached to it and the easier it will become to handle.

It should come as no surprise that this applies to your life as well as your business. Anticipate failure and learn how to fail well, and it will lead you to a richer, wiser life.

Encouraging Your Masters

Skill is overrated. Even today on job listings, you will see people list “5-7 years experience” in some specific position or “skilled with” a myriad of tools and techniques.

What is ultimately important within a team, company, or any community is mastery. Skill is something you have; mastery is something you strive for. It may be necessary to screen for certain skills when hiring, but it is just as important to find someone who is seeking mastery.

Of course, even if I’ve hired someone with the correct skills who is seeking mastery, it’s my responsibility to ensure this person is encouraged to mastery. The three most important elements to me in encouraging a master are:

  1. Challenge. Books have been written on this single point, none so important as those by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. In short, human beings get “in the zone” when their limits are stretched, when they have to rise to a challenge that is within the realm of possibility. Research in gamification suggests people are most motivated when they are already 90% of the way to their goal. Constantly stretching that additional 10% is what keeps us engaged and keeps us learning.
  2. Domain. Admit it, it feels good to be the best at something. And it doesn’t feel good when someone else is better than you at your specialty. It’s natural to want a claim to your own territory, and in fact it’s crucial to the success of a small business (or department) that you perform a role that no one else can. Be careful about the danger of devaluing an employee’s domain when you reassign work, make decisions about their domain without their input, or hire new people to do what they see as their own specialty. Respect their domain and they will take better care of it than you ever could. Feeling insecure about their domain will also lead to territorialism, which will sabotage collaboration and innovation.
  3. Uniqueness. I could be a master of many skills that could be mastered equally by others, and can be replaced at a moment’s notice. But true mastery is irreplaceable; it is uniquely mine. This is why encouraging mastery in any technical skill must be a stepping-stone to a unique contribution, building a master’s perspective and not just a skill set. How can you identify the skills that will round out your master’s perspective? By listening. By connecting. By encouraging instead of ordering. Most people, especially those in high-performance workplaces, will seek out challenges that connect with their deeper interests (if they feel safe and encouraged to do so). I’m not saying that, from time to time, you won’t require someone to learn a certain skill just because someone in your team needs to know it. But understanding how the masters under your protection are growing, and not necessarily in the neat little boxes you’ve made for them, is crucial to their development into the truly powerful human force that will change your organization.

Keep in mind that a master isn’t something you construct. You are encouraging a human being to grow, within the context of a community, into a more specialized individual with a unique and ever-increasing ability to contribute to the larger picture.

(This post is part five of a series.)

How to Gather Your Community

I’ve heard people ask how they can create community, cooperation, collaboration.

The secret is that you can’t.

Community is something that grows between a group of people who have a common interest. By “interest,” I mean they are all invested in an outcome. The outcome might be a temporary goal, such as a community theater production, or it might be something abstract and ongoing, like a group of friends who have a particular picture of what they’d like their lives to be.

Another way of saying this is that people in a community see themselves as part of the same story.

In ancient times, people-groups wrote epic poems and creation myths that imbued their cultures with a common identity. There is perhaps no better example than Virgil’s Aeneid, which turned the famed losers from Homer’s Iliad into the victorious founders of the future Rome. This is one of the most impressive turnaround stories in history: the Trojans were an utterly defeated, homeless people, and yet they founded the greatest empire on the earth. This story gave the Roman people a common origin, a set of values that included loyalty to the emperor, and a vision of a bright and glorious destiny–even those who didn’t believe every word.

If you are a leader, no matter your position in an organization, it’s because you’re telling a story that others want to join. If it’s your job to lead, you have to be deliberate with the story you’re telling. Where did your organization come from? Where is it going? And what part does each individual have to play in that common identity and common success?

This is far from the last post you’ll see about story, but for now, consider: Everyone you work with, from your employees to your investors, from your customers to your suppliers, is building a story with every interaction. Is it a story you’re building together?

(This post is part four of a series.)