As humans we all share certain inherent characteristics. These traits run across culture, education, gender and time. The need to a part of a group or a team and to be recognized for bringing value to that group are just one set of characteristics that we all share as humans.
There are multitudes of studies on these types of issues and while some provide real insight I believe that some actually hinder transformation for leadership. One area of research in particular explores the idea of whether companies provide sufficient tools to leaders to provide recognition to their staff. Further exploration of the question delves into all the ways that companies should be supporting their leaders by providing various programs (tools) that can be used for recognition.
I have to admit that this approach not only does not resonate with me but I suspect it actually hinders leaders from understanding the true nature of recognition and meaning for staff. For example, I used to love personal day-timers. You know those neat books you could carry around to put notes or appointments or client information in? I was always on the look out for the "next best" timer to try out. The problem was that once I had used it for a bit I would eventually fall out of the practice of using it. I developed quite a dusty collection of them and none of them actually did for me what I needed. Why? Because I didn't use them. Seems obvious I know but what I eventually discovered was that the issue of personal organization could not be addressed by something extrinsic but had to first be addressed intrinsically or internally. Until I determined that this was important enough for me to seriously address and make an effort toward no amount of cool day-timers were going to help.
And so it is as well with the issue of recognition. All the recognition tools in the world are not going to make you any better at providing it until you start to "do" it. The "doing" of recognition actually does not require much in terms of tools but it does require practice. Only when a leader begins to exercise that muscle and it becomes a regular part of their daily activities do tools even start to become useful. I know of one successful leader who is spoken of in glowing terms by all who work for him. When I asked him what he attributed that success to he opened his desk drawer and produced a list of all his staff. There were check marks beside each and he confided that he uses this list to make sure that each and every week he has at least one meaningful conversation with each of those people. In short he had to practice recognition and it cost him and the company nothing. His recognition became intrinsic and that is where really effective recognition begins.
I remember doing my student teaching at Fort Saskatchewan Penitentiary. Here was a classic case of a captive audience, literally, and the challenge was how to get them to learn, to perform when there were no external compulsions to do so. One student in particular seemed only interested in being in class in order to get out of the cell block. There was little participation and while he did not interrupt the lessons he wasn't taking much out of them either. I had made a point of trying to get to know each of my class and I recall that he had some amazing doodles and I complimented him on it.. He complained that it was hard to get good stuff to draw with and it gave me an idea. The next morning I presented him with some charcoal pencils and a sketch pad. While he couldn't take these back to general population (the pencils could be potential weapons) I told him he was free to use it and sketch in his free time during school hours.
At the time I recall thinking that it really was no big deal and a pretty simple gesture. But I was wrong. His demeanor in class changed and he began to be a part of the discussions and really started to enjoy the lessons. My three months went by quickly and on the last day he presented me with a beautiful sketch of a Ptarmigan. He shared that the pencils and the sketch pad had meant a lot to him and he had asked his mother to look at getting him into an Art college when he had completed serving his time.
It wasn't a lot but taking the time to get to know him and discover even just a little about his passion around art was really my first lesson in understanding that truly effective recognition always starts on a personal level. Add all the "tools" you want later if you wish but never skip this step. Get to know your team for who they are as people and you will discover how much more productive and enjoyable your team can be.
It will come as a surprise to many of you who are in leadership but you have way more influence than you realize. Perhaps this may seem like a statement of the obvious but research has shown that leaders either don't realize the depth of influence they exert over their teams or they don't know how to use that influence to drive performance.
In your organization you can bring to mind those people who exert influence with their peers, with leadership and on their teams. We all know them, those "go to" people who seem to have a handle on pretty much everything and who are able to provide timely feedback or support when needed. They have a broad network of people they interact with and are seen by others as someone who adds value. Often you will find others going to them for advice either for how to handle a task or peer or for direction regarding career aspirations and so on.
In one company I know of there was one such person who exerted that kind of influence. They had built strong relationships with the company leadership by performing above expectations but also through consistent decisions that were always in the best interest of the company and that leadership group. They could be counted on to keep information in confidence. That approach was also applied with peers as well and most knew they could get sound advise and honest answers from that person. So what position did they hold? CEO? VP? Director? Manager? None of the above. This person was an office coordinator.
It should surprise us that this is the case but the reality is that we all have the capacity to develop that kind of circle of influence. While this type influence has nothing to do with position or title it is something that we can all develop and it can be particularly powerful when utilized from a position of leadership.
So why don't many leaders recognize how much influence they have or could have? It could be in part because we fall into the trap of believing that the "title" or position is sufficient. After all if I am leading a team they have to listen to me don't they? Yes, they have to comply. What we forget is that compliance is a minimum standard. Performance is something that goes beyond that minimum, tapping into what is called "discretionary effort." Maybe another way to put it is this; you can manage without influence but you cannot lead without it. Intrinsically we can all tell the difference between those two concepts. Thus we can find people without position or title who are leading and some who have position and title only managing or at the very least struggling to lead.
The best scenario is when one of those "influencers" moves into leadership but the good news is that each of us as leaders can learn to exercise our influence muscle. The first step is recognizing the necessity of doing so.
One of the key areas around employee engagement and driving performance is the concept of allowing for employee involvement. I find it interesting that this issue often is a stumbling block for leaders at all levels in an organization. Often new leaders come into that role believing that they must "know it all" and thus allowing for employee involvement in those things that are part of their "jurisdiction" can be a threat. For leaders at a more senior level employee involvement can be too time consuming (I am too busy, just do what I say) or just plain messy. I have had a VP tell me once that he did not want high levels of employee involvement because it blurred the lines between all the various silos in the company. In other words it looked potentially messy.
All research points to the fact that each of us join organizations not just to earn a paycheck but to contribute, to be part of a team and be successful. How then do you as a leader allow for involvement with your group? Research done at the Ivy School of Business points to several factors that leaders can utilize and for our discussion we are going to look at two.
The first practice they point to is what they call "power." They define power to mean " that employees have the power to make decisions that are important to their performance and to the quality of their working lives." (Edward Lawler, IBJ) How frustrated have you been in those times when mandates came down to you that seemed at their core to make your ability to perform well harder? Or how many times have you seen decisions that seemed minor like taking the pop machine out of the lunch room or slight changes in scheduling become flash points because the staff impacted had no input or prior warning?
Power, as Lawler defines it goes a long way. One of my favorite research readings involved a study of two groups and performance in a noisy environment. Each group were given task in a control room with loud industrial noises pumped in. The first group had no ability to impact those noises and the second group had a button that they could push to turn off those noises. As you can guess the first group performed at a lower level than the second. What is interesting is that the second group performed at higher levels but rarely or never actually pushed the button! As members explained later in the debriefing it was just sufficient to know that if they wanted to they could control that particular part of their work.
The second practice is identified as knowledge. They define knowledge as "a commitment to training and development." High engagement companies recognize that if they are going to have employees making decisions they need to equip them with the skills to be able to do this well. This training can be informal front line coaching or more formal organizational approaches that really are about culture and change. In either case the goal is to structure involvement in order to maximize labor potential in creating production or cost savings.
This is an effective approach and is utilized in Kaizen methodology in terms of producing big results come from many small changes accumulated over time. Where do those small changes come from? The involvement of employees in the process and work that impacts them. Give them power over those things that impact their performance and train them how to approach these issues and make good decisions. Watch then what happens to their engagement and performance!
There are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of studies around the issue of employee engagement. Gallop and many other research organizations have concluded that most employee engagement sits around the 35% range. Today many companies and leaders deal what is now called "presenteeism" (lost productivity at work).
Engagement is "the" issue that companies must address in this new global market place. The movement of the aging "boomers" out of the workforce along with the smaller workforce left to replace them is creating a highly competitive labor market. And how are most companies dealing with this new reality? As one study done by Towers-Watson states: "Companies are running 21st century businesses with 20th century work place practices." In this milieu companies are competing to find the right talent, build and maintain engagement and retain that core set of workers with those skill essential to their needs. The cost of not succeeding on these fronts is astronomical and too much is invested in getting a new worker functional in a role just to have them leave and go elsewhere because the company did not created the right environment for engagement.
There are key areas that have been identified as crucial to driving engagement and discretionary effort. One such area is defined as creating an environment that is energizing and promotes the total well being of the staff. This actually goes beyond the traditional concepts that spring to mind such as wellness programs and so on. When Towers-Watson dug a little deeper they decided that this area was best described as relational. That is the sum of the many interactions that occur in an organization. Core to all of this is the time, guidance on performance, coaching and investment that leaders are prepared to put into their teams. I call it recognition.
You may think that this is an oversimplification but lets explore just a couple of thoughts on this. We have discussed in the past that most workers "guess" they have done a good job because nobody yelled at them that day. The reality is that most workers may have very limited dealings with their leadership. Everyone is busy and we fall into the trap of believing that if no one is screaming things must be going okay. Maybe it is but is "okay" what you want? What your team wants? Punching a clock is just that and it is certainly not performance or engagement.
Your taking time to engage with your team on a daily basis is really in effect applying recognition. In addition that interaction gives you opportunity to discuss performance and provide and receive feedback on opportunities to create improvement. Giving your team the scope to explore improvements and innovations is also another form of recognition as in doing so you are communicating a level of trust and confidence in your team.
How are you doing with regard to watching out for the well-being of your team? This is another relational piece that is actually a form of recognition. Do you take the time to notice who is stressed or who doesn't seem to be feeling well? Have you spent enough time with someone that you have confidence in knowing their skill sets and can start coaching them along their career path in the company? All of these are relational in nature but also a form of recognition. We don't take the time to get to know people we are not interested in. Alternately time spent investing in someone is the surest way to communicate value and significance and who wouldn't want to work for that kind of leader or company.
I am sure you realize that there are many more types of relational interactions that you could be employing to generate an energized environment and create sustainable engagement. The key is to identify and practice them. It will not only enrich your team but will enrich your experience of leadership as well.
I had a commanding officer who used to say to us "My job is to get you through this safely and alive. If by some chance we come out the other side of this friends that will be a bonus." I know the military often does not get credit for "progressive" leadership style but this man's statement really sums up the delicate balance that a leaders walks between role and relationship.
Perhaps because the stakes are always higher leadership in the military tends to be much more stark with regard to contrasting role and relationship. Role involves communicating objectives and tasks that must be accomplished and directing the group toward the attainment of those objectives. In the military there are therefore clear lines established for leadership roles. However and especially in the military, leaders know too that attainment of those objectives is difficult if not impossible without relationship.
I recall a scene from Henry V where on the night before the Battle of Agincourt Henry wonders the camp sitting at various fires, visiting with his troops and encouraging them. He knows that he is going to send many of them into harms way (his role) and yet sits with them to visit and in so doing provides a great example of how leaders create relationship with the team. In his speech the following morning Henry creates a "shared" experience or common bond with his group with these rousing words:
"But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day."
Wise leaders know that often the bond of relationship will accomplish what the communication of objectives and tasks could not. For example, only a small percentage of learners are motivated by good grades and yet how many students have responded positively to that teacher who invested in them and showed they cared? I recall working with a company where the employees held their CEO with the greatest respect. It was hard for me to make the linkage initially until one day one of the supervisors shared that during one particularly tough period in the companies history it became known that the CEO had bankrolled several pay periods out of his own pocket in order to keep everyone going. His commitment to his employees went even beyond that and included making sure the company gave to causes that were important to them. Rarely have I been in a place where universally there was such high regard for the leader and a collective willingness to accomplish the objectives set before them.
As a leader you have a role. In that role you will have targets, objectives and measures that you and your team need to accomplish. There are many methods available to you for doing this but the "gas" that makes that truly happen will be the effort you put into creating relationship with your team that is at once professional and meaningful. Professional with regard to striving to accomplish the goals set before you and meaningful in the sense that your team will know their value in your eyes and "want" to perform for you.
In the realm of business and leadership that we call communication there is knowledge and there is wisdom. With regard to knowledge there are enough self help books on communication to stretch to the sun and back - just kidding, but there are a lot! Knowledge, it would follow then, is not a barrier to communication and yet the issue of timely direction and feedback remains one of the top issues for most companies.
How then does wise leadership apply this knowledge to deal with feedback? Joseph Folkman, a Forbes contributor and behavioral statistician conducted several studies on feedback and communication as it relates to leadership effectiveness. His findings are instructive and insightful..
Not surprising in the findings was the trend that leaders who provide honest and timely feedback (direction, instruction and help) had employee engagement levels that consistently ranked in the top 10th percentile. Alternately leaders who failed to provide that feedback had employee engagement in the bottom 15th percentile.
What was interesting was another finding related to this study which showed that leaders who consistently sought feedback from their employees, peers and their bosses ranked among the top 10th percentile and had a "leadership effectiveness" score of 86%! What is interesting about this is that it suggests that effective leaders understand that feedback is a loop or to put it more plainly a dialogue.
You may be thinking that this is simply a statement of the obvious and you would be right. What this doesn't address is the fact that although this seems simple and obvious why isn't it happening more? Let me suggest two ideas; perspective and practice.
Perspective is how you look at your role and the role of those around you. I would suggest that these successful leaders take the perspective that their staff, their team need to be given every chance to succeed and to ensure that is happening they provide genuine and timely feedback. Genuine feedback covers both positive and negative components of someones performance. Tell them when they are doing the right things and correct them when they are not. Good leaders know that they are responsible for the success of their team and there is no shortcut with regard to feedback. They understand too that they need feedback and when they ask for it they are not only engaging in a dialogue but also creating a milieu of respect.
Practice is where true wisdom comes into play. The art of genuine and timely feedback is something that good leaders know they have to practice. Even the best communicators in the world know they have to discipline themselves to be present, to provide that regular communication and to build that atmosphere of respect. Many great leaders I know and have worked with have lists and schedules that they follow rigorously so that they know they are staying on top of the feedback loop. They know too well how the tyranny of the urgent can rob them of those opportunities that truly drive engagement and performance with their team.
Don't be shy about admitting to having a list or a schedule because what you really communicate is that your team is important enough for you to make that a priority. Feedback is like anything else, the more you practice the better you get at it. I read once that Michael Jordan threw literally hundreds of thousands of practice shots and he never stopped doing it right up to the end of his career. So practice your feedback, ensure your perspective is about the success of your team and don't stop, it will be worth it in the long run.