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?

Writing Your Founding Myth

Yesterday we examined the existing story of your organization. Today we’re going to explore how we can nudge that story into place to create a founding myth–the story that underlies the identity of any company, nation, team, or collective.

As much as Americans may disagree about the particulars, most of us have a shared respect for our founders and place emphasis on the values of liberty and equality. Today, this story includes the long fight to end slavery and grant equal rights to minorities. This is our founding myth: a particular telling of our history, with emphasis on the values that form our identity and the heroes who championed those values.

A large chunk of the Hebrew Bible contains what could be called Davidic mythology: from foretelling David’s kingship long before his birth, to calling upon his bloodline well after his death. The patron, YHWH, brought the people out of Egypt and into a new land, established the identity and values of the culture, and provided a model and hero in the form of King David. This myth sustained the identity of Israel and the Jewish people through multiple exiles, through Greek and then Roman occupations.

As you can tell from my short telling of these two stories, founding myths have important characteristics that help to shape a community:

  1. Shared origins. Your shared origins might stretch back to the founding of the organization, particularly if it was founded last week or last year. Or it might only stretch back to a particular turn in the organization’s history. I began working at KPMG in 2005, shortly after a tax-shelter scandal that resulted in a deferred prosecution agreement with the government. The narrative at the time hinged on that event: we were going to become the firm with the most integrity and the highest-quality work. Sure, we could have traced our origins to the 1800s and the four partners that make up the letters of the name, but that wasn’t the story we were telling; that wasn’t the firm we were trying to be. Our story was of a new beginning, of a murky past and a better future.
  2. Shared values. It’s no coincidence that the greatest philosophers, scholars, and scientists of ancient Greece lived and worked in Athens, the city of Athena. Out of all possible patron gods, its founders chose the goddess of wisdom–not the god of war to have a powerful military, the goddess of fertility to have abundant farmland, or the god of the forge to have unparalleled industry. The story of Athens defined the city’s key value, and elevated that value above many other perfectly good values. If you lead an organization, I urge you to pick one value above all others that is of special importance to this group of people. Then make sure it is embodied in your founding myth.
  3. Shared destiny. It’s never enough to simply share a past. In order to build a community, people have to believe in a shared future that follows from that past. Your shared destiny is the natural result of the values that call you out of your origins; the message is that all that is needed for you to go from where you were to this bright future is to embody your values. Often this destiny is something you know can be achieved because in your founding myth it has been achieved before: George Washington’s presidency, David’s kingship, Steve Jobs’ release of the iPhone. But if your organization is too new to have past successes, or if you’re overseeing a major shift in culture and values, focus on the promise of the future you are trying to achieve.

Through all of these, the operative word is “shared.” You can’t dictate a new future from on high; it has to be something that each person in your organization can believe, a destiny and a set of values that each individual wants to execute. Be aware that this may also be a way to cull your membership; those who aren’t interested in being a part of your shared story may not belong in your community.

Of course, the one thing this story is missing is a character. The character is a champion. The story isn’t about the champion–not really–but the champion breathes life into the ideas. She emerges from the shared past (like everyone else), embodies the shared values (like everyone can), and creates a shared destiny (by virtue of her embodiment of those values).

George Washington was a simple land owner who embodied the values of liberty and equality, led the military forces of rebellion, and eventually became the first President of the United States. David was a humble shepherd who embodied the values of piety and wisdom, overcame both the Philistines and the forces of Saul, and became the first in a long line of kings. Neither of these men were perfect even in the myths–in fact, being an ordinary, flawed human being is important. But because they embodied the shared values, they brought about a bright destiny for all their people.

You might in fact be the champion of your organization’s founding myth, like Jack Welch was at GE. But the myth isn’t about you, it’s about the collective identity.

Once you’ve laid out what you want your founding myth to be, you will need people to buy into it. But recognize that your founding myth is what the people in your organization believe it is. It’s the story they tell, not the story you tell. The closer your myth is to the story people are already telling, the better you will be able to convince them. But remain open to the possibility that your story will need to go through several revisions before everyone’s on the same page.

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.

This Is More Important Than Money

We have been taught that the primary purpose of any business is to make money (by which we mean, to produce a net profit).

Did you also know that the primary purpose of any human life is to breathe, drink, sleep, and eat?

I would like to assert that this teaching is false. Profit is not the purpose of a healthy, functional business, it’s merely a result of having one.

Do I mean that no business that pursues net profit as its highest objective can be successful? It depends on what you mean by success. I could certainly pursue profit and succeed in acquiring profit. But a con man can also make a profit. So can investors who take over a business only to shut it down and lay off thousands of workers. Thieves, murderers, warmongering rulers, and slave traders have all made profits from ethically and morally questionable activities. Are their actions justified by mere profit? And are their actions repeatable and sustainable over the long term?

For a business to be healthy, it must have a healthy profit. Not just the margin in any given quarter, but its source, its sustainability, its philosophical foundations, and perhaps most importantly, its impact on the people who made it possible–employees, customers, people in the supply chain, and so on.

If my business seeks first the good of others, and creates profit as a result, then I have begun to build a healthy, sustainable business–just as eating vegetables, breathing clean air, and sleeping well every night begin to build a healthy, sustainable body. And when I seek to expand my business, my two leading questions will be, “How can I help even more people?” and “How can I help people even more?” Such questions will guide me toward sustainable growth much better than “How can I make more money?”

(The definition of “help” can be very broad, but be careful not to fool yourself into believing that doing whatever you want is “helping.” If you can’t convince someone else within fifteen seconds that what you do is helpful, it probably isn’t.)