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.