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 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?

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.

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.)

Partnering Up: The Four Things People Need

It’s possible to make everyone who works with you a literal partner, with a share of your company and all the commensurate benefits and dangers. But not only does that likely sound unappealing to you, it’s probably not appealing to most of the people who would work with you.

What most people want isn’t literal ownership. Most people don’t care for the risk and the inconsistency. What they want is actually fairly straight-forward.

  1. Trust. When you are working with a partner, you trust her. Yet in so many environments, employees are treated with suspicion. It’s easy to find reasons to worry that your employees are stealing from you, or wasting time you’re paying them for. The sad irony is that treating your employees with suspicion not only undermines your relationship with them, it actually encourages them to do the very things you’re trying to guard against. Start with trust–which is a form of dependence–and you will be rewarded with a healthier business.
  2. Humanity. The average person wants to be treated like a human being, equal in substance to everyone else. The fact that one person is the employer and another the employee isn’t a matter of quality or even of mastery. It’s a matter of role. If you are suited to be a leader, it’s better for you to lead; if you aren’t suited to be a leader, you have something equally valuable to contribute that your leader can’t. Leadership requires the humility and courage to be equal even to interns and entry-level employees, and to hold their investment in your firm as dearly as you hold your own.
  3. Community. I may use this interchangeably with another word: context. But for now I want to emphasize that the community of co-workers, leaders, and in the larger sphere suppliers and customers, is critical to the ability of each individual to work toward the good of the whole. A business is not just a place of employment, it is a clan, a tribe, a nation. You must be bound not just by function but by myth and identity and culture, or you will not hold together.
  4. Mastery. Each person wants to be a part of that community not just in the abstract, but by bringing mastery to it. This means each individual is the best at something, is constantly challenged to expand her ability, and is poised to contribute in a way that no one else in the company–perhaps no one else in the world–is able. Perhaps just as importantly, it means each individual’s contribution and domain is recognized, respected, and rewarded.

Throughout all these, there is a common undercurrent: respect. At each stage, you are establishing and building respect for the people working with you. And they in turn are growing in their respect for you.

It’s not difficult to understand, but it’s more difficult than you might think to accomplish. Fortunately, I’ve put these in a specific order to help you work toward each. Start at the top and work your way down. Once you get to the bottom, start over again. Make it a regular exercise, and let me know if you don’t see improvement.