Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager could get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman also suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

[Repost from December 14, 2017]

Swearing makes people stronger

Hear no evil, speak no ev... Well you know the rest. By Barbara Burton
Hear no evil, speak no ev… Well you know the rest.  Photo courtesy of Barbara Burton.

Do you swear in the workplace?  I bet you try not to, at least not too often.  But sometimes it slips out, and sometimes it just feels right.  What do we know about the effect profanity has on our candor and our emotional closeness to others?

Years ago, I was driving my two-and-a-half year old daughter to childcare.  It was cold out, and she was safely bucked into the car seat in the back.  We lived on a major street, and I drove Westbound a half-mile to the nearest red light.  There was a car in front of us with the right turn signal on, but they weren’t turning.  My daughter said “Get out of the fawa way.”  My head tilted, and I ran the phrase through my head.  “Sweetie,” I asked, “what did you just say?”

“Get out of the fucking way,” she announced.  I contained my laughter.  This was her first F-bomb, and I had just enough self-control to realize I couldn’t teach her this was funny.  I had to keep this social.

“Darling,” I asked, “where did you learn to talk like that?”

“Mummy talks that way every time she drives.”  I gripped the wheel and tensed my facial muscles, using all of my life force to resist laughing.  The light changed, and we continued driving.  I turned into the ever-familiar cul-de-sac, and we stepped into the childcare to take off her shoes and jacket.  I asked our childcare provider, Liliana, if I could borrow her phone.  I said there was something I needed my wife to hear.  Liliana said she knew what this was about.  She was experienced.

I phoned my wife who was at home on maternity leave bonding with our second child.  “Hello?” she answered.  “Hi, your daughter just said something and I want you to hear it” I said.  “Oh, this can’t be good” she cringed.  I handed my daughter the phone and prompted her to “Say to mummy what you hear her say every time she drives.”  She was wearing a cute little dress with pink flowers.  She held the phone to her ear and yelled: “Fuckin’ mooove!”

What the Science Says About Profanity

What does swearing accomplish, really?  Citing excerpts from Emma Byrne’s Swearing is Good For You a Wired article from January 2018 described several behavioral experiments involving swearing.  In one, test subjects were asked to submerge their hands in ice water until they could not tolerate it any more.  Some were asked to state neutral terms describing furniture, and others were asked to say a profanity.

“…when they were swearing, the intrepid volunteers could keep their hands in the water nearly 50 percent longer as when they used their non-cursing, table-based adjectives. Not only that, while they were swearing the volunteers’ heart rates went up and their perception of pain went down. In other words, the volunteers experienced less pain while swearing.”

Enduring physical pain was also associated with aggressive game-playing, and a willingness to harm others in a simulation in which they could choose to shock others.  There’s a cross-over between insensitivity, enduring discomfort, mean-ness, and profanity.  Hence our vocabulary is so much richer when driving.

Swearing also makes people physically stronger.  Athletes can attest to this.  In one study cited by the Guardian people swearing while operating an exercise bike saw their peak power increase by 28 watts.  In another test, profanity increased grip strength by 2.1kg.

We can envision a profanity-rich working environment where people exert physical effort and occasionally get hurt.  I imagine construction sites, the armed forces, and resource sectors as places where swearing might just be a normal coping mechanism for the physical environment.  But what about an office environment?

Directly quoting Byrne’s book once again, an article from the Cut noted

“From the factory floor to the operating theatre, scientists have shown that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer, and be more productive than those who don’t,” she writes. …A study published earlier this year backs up this and other research, suggesting swearing with colleagues can help create “a sense of belonging, mutual trust, group affiliation … and cohesion.”

Referencing other research, the article noted that profanity “…does still carry some social risk — it’s still a little bit taboo — so it imparts a feeling of trust in whomever you’re swearing with.”

Profanity Must Be Distributed Fairly

It’s interesting that we would trust people who swear more.  On one hand, people are going against the current to express a more candid emotional state.  On the other hand, people who break all the rules tend to swear more… and those people aren’t more trustworthy.  There’s a good review of the literature by Scott McGreal in Psychology Today, in which he looks at three different studies about honesty and swearing.  McGreal concludes the findings are mixed and sometimes contradictory.

A frustrating feature of this trust and solidarity is the double-standard on the use of profanity.  In the article in the Cut, Byrne noted men and women used to both swear with abandon until the early 18th century. Then women were encouraged to adopt cleaner language.  Men, by contrast retained the right to swear, using their power to express a full range of emotion.  To this day, there is more judgement when women swear, compared to the men’s presumed freedom.

My question is, if there’s a workplace that has a mixture of men and women, how are people to experience equality and camaraderie without a level playing-field for profanity?  If it’s male-stereotyped work involving physical strength and the endurance of pain and discomfort, do we disadvantage women in those workplaces by discouraging them from swearing?  And what about female-dominated work in health care, child care, and food services that often require strength and the enduring of pain and discomfort?  Those are customer-facing work environments, so some decorum is in order.  Are we discouraging full workplace performance by requiring lady-like vocabularies?

Besides, who ever said that women should swear less in the first place?

One thing’s for certain, this opinion did not come from my wife.

Rejecting feedback a corporate ‘true crime’

Exed Formation continue à l'Ecole polytechnique. By Ecole polytechnique
Exed Formation continue à l’Ecole polytechnique. Photo courtesy of Ecole polytechnique.

What if junior staff and those far from head office knew more than their superiors?  It’s an impolite question which may offend those who have worked so hard to get to the top.  But it’s an important question to ask.

In February 2016 the Government of Canada implemented the Phoenix payroll system, and it was bungled from the start.  According to the Auditor General’s report in Spring 2018, mistakes were consistently made by three Phoenix executives that negated the input and information coming from those lower ranking than themselves, and those who did not work in their particular bunker.  Auditor’s reports make for great reading, because they are often “true crime” page-turners of corporate malfeasance.  Let’s take a closer look.

The Productivity of New Employees at the Miramichi Pay Centre

The first stage of the Phoenix project was to centralize staff working with the old software, then the new software would be brought in.  But the project team chose Miramichi, New Brunswick as the geographic location for centralization.  The previous system was staffed by people all over the country, so the move to Miramichi was a tough sell.  Many experienced pay advisors chose not to move.

Because of the move, there was a loss of experience and a drop in productivity.  A lot of staff were new.  Think to the first time you have done anything – you’re slower until you hit your stride.  It takes months to get on top of the work, after which you eliminate errors and do things faster and easier.  But there was no allowance for this ramp-up in the Phoenix schedule, and no anticipation this time was even needed.  Prior to the move, each pay advisor could handle an average workload of 184 pay files.  After the move, productivity dropped to 150 files.

This was troublesome because Public Services and Procurement Canada had expected productivity would rise to 200 files per advisor.  This gap played out on the grand scale.

…Miramichi pay advisors could handle a total of about 69,000 pay files, not the 92,000 files the Department had transferred to the Pay Centre. …outstanding pay requests were already increasing because of centralization, and pay advisors in Miramichi were already complaining of excessive workload and stress.  …Even though pay advisors were less productive than what was expected of them, Phoenix executives still expected that their productivity would more than double when they started to use Phoenix. [Paragraphs 1.71-1.72]

Some Interpretations on How to Mitigate a Tactical Blunder

If information was shared and accepted, there might have been a clear opportunity to overcome the problems at the Pay Centre.  Centralization required either the acceptance of a downshift in experience level and hence more staff would be required. Or they could allow additional time for expertise and productivity to slowly build.  As a third alternative, centralization would need to include locations where there was an established labour market.

But these are all tactical solutions to tactical problems.  The strategic issue is that powerful people were negating information that was coming from the ground.  It’s a “no complaining” mindset.  And because the tactical complaints were real, leadership decisions to negate these voices caused tactical problems to overpower strategy.

Yes, Org Charts and Internal Audits are Important

The larger and more complicated a project is, the more important internal audit becomes.  The Auditor General’s report asserts that a proper audit prior to implementation “would have given the Deputy Minister an independent source of assurance…  that could have resulted in a different implementation decision.”  There were guidelines in place for independent review, but the review was controlled by three Phoenix executives.  Those executives determined the interview questions and the list of interviewees. The interviewees chosen were all members of the Phoenix project team, who were under the thumb of those same executives.  So, watch what you say…

The project had significant problems with governance and the chain of command.  The organizational chart shows a reporting structure that bottlenecks through the three Phoenix executives who in turn reported to the Deputy Minister.  There was no direct line to the Deputy Minister that was unfiltered by those three people.  Say anything you want, and they’ll pass it along.  Or not.

The Fake Consultation Meeting

In order for a meeting to be productive, you need the right people in the room and freedom for those people to share information and opinions.  However, the key meeting prior to implementation was rigged to provide one-directional information flow.  The briefing was January 29, 2016 when 30 deputy ministers from across government were told that Phoenix was about to be implemented.  Fourteen departments and agencies provided feedback prior to the meeting that they had “significant concerns with Phoenix”.  But the people leading the project assured those in attendance that all the issues had been resolved.  Critics were cautioned that any delays would cost too much money and cause a knock-on series of additional delays.  They were going ahead.

The project’s leaders didn’t have to try hard to win people over.  That is because Public Services and Procurement Canada chose this particular briefing meeting because it did not have any decision-making authority.

As an information-sharing and advisory forum, the Committee could not formally challenge the information it received from Public Services and Procurement Canada or the decision to implement Phoenix. [Paragraph 1.100]

All subsequent stories were about pay advisors struggling to get out from under a backlog as their workload doubled while grappling with a new piece of software.  In the story of this project’s failure there is little discussion about the quality of the new software itself, because the project was eaten alive by the landscape.

Appropriate Leadership Styles in Information-Heavy Strategic Efforts

It’s too bad there weren’t low-level people who were free to speak their mind about how things were going.  And it’s curious how high-ranking people could develop a lifestyle where they never talk to lower-ranking people.  Why do leaders do this to themselves?  I know that democracy can be unpleasant and messy.  And egalitarianism involves a lot of extra work.  But for senior people to be so single-minded in their goals that they would bar feedback from those they are affecting goes beyond arrogance and into strategic self-harm.

It’s like reverse-provincialism.  Provincialism is the notion that there are people living in remote areas who are less sophisticated and overly concerned with their local issues, to the detriment of higher-level goals.  But what if people in the provinces and remote pockets of the hierarchy are the ones who have a better grasp of the truth?  What do we do about high-level people in head offices who know nothing about what’s happening in the field?  What do we do about people who think their big fancy plans are brilliant and best, when they are really just playing fancy board games for which the only prize is a slightly more expensive used car.

I know what we should do with these people.  We should teach them.

Keeping Old Things Beautiful

Tower Bridge (HDR), by Adriano Aurlio Araujo
Tower Bridge (HDR).  Photo courtesy of Adriano Aurlio Araujo

We need to get excited about maintenance, according to a great counter-intuitive article by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel.  The authors propose that we should give “maintenance” higher priority in our society.  By maintenance they are mostly referring to government-owned physical infrastructure; ensuring it is functioning, well-maintained, and not closed-down for emergency repairs.  While the authors also tip their hats to computer infrastructure, the connection to public transit keeps the idea tangible for everyone.

The article asserts that “Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.”  They highlight that while “innovation” describes the art of doing something new, technology broadly-defined should rightfully consider technology that is mid-life or old.

Many of the coolest stories in business shine a light on this misunderstood area.  There are vulture funds that pick up the assets of distressed companies and refurbish the “old” company into something new.  There are entrepreneurs that buy old, depreciated assets at bargain-basement prices and in the process net high percentage returns on the asset they got for cheap.  There is a company in my region that tried to close down their business, held an auction to unload their old equipment, and discovered that auctioning is an incredibly lucrative business to get into.

But those stories are a little too sexy; let’s get back to drudgery.  It turns out that a large number of engineers and computer programmers are devoted to maintaining something that has already been created.  In addition, maintenance workers are often paid less than those who are closest to ribbon-cutting ceremonies, IPOs, and product launches.

Workforce Management and the Maintenance of Human Capital

The connection to human resources is that people are trying to articulate how we should think of employees as “human capital.”  The phrase itself invokes a metaphor that the people who show up every day are a treasure that you invest in and get great work out of.  Perhaps we should extend the metaphor into the importance of human capital maintenance.  Do we have opportunities to conserve, re-build, renovate, and polish-up our pre-existing cadre of staff?  If you think about it for a while, examples abound:

  • When employees are injured, there is significant value to intervening early to help them stay at work or return to work sooner. The “return to work” field is a specialized field which has a knack to it, and major employers take these efforts seriously.
  • It is well understood that new hires have higher engagement than longer-serving staff.  By default, the implication is that if you want to improve engagement, your greatest opportunity is with longer-service staff.  At the crux of workforce analytics and employee engagement is the opportunity to refresh the workplace experience of those hired long ago.
  • In the c-suite, there is the recurring challenge that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Drucker) However, it is understood that workplace culture changes very slowly. This tension implies that those who want to advance a strategy must have significant understanding of the longer-serving staff who carry the workplace culture.  Perhaps looking to the wisdom of longer-serving staff is an easier way to predict which initiatives will take hold in the pre-existing culture?
  • When attempting workforce analytics and workforce planning efforts that align to strategy, stale strategy documents and longer-serving executives can be your only opportunity for alignment. New executives and new strategy documents can have a long runway, in some cases with a perpetual churn.
  • Long-serving staff tend to learn a number of shortcuts that allow them to achieve their work goals more easily.   This grab-bag of quick-tips, tacit knowledge, and mature social networks are a troublesome source of high productivity.  Workplaces fear the retirement of long-service employees who understand the physical and organizational machinery in a manner that is undocumented.  In such cases there is a demand for knowledge management, the active cultivation of repositories of information where tacit knowledge is curated and transferred between newer and longer-serving staff.
  • As millennials age, our struggles to understand this generation are going to shift. It’s not so much that we don’t know what they’re thinking (they tend to just tell us).  Rather, what will their experience be as millennial managers, dealing with the next batch of young whipper-snappers in Generation Z?  This multi-generational transfer of energy and wisdom will demand a workplace culture of humility and curiosity.  Workplace traditions can emerge in just a couple of years, and can evolve around the behaviors of employees young and old.  Yet it is not so much the best perspective that matters; it is the ability to move a diversity of perspectives amongst peers.

As the shine comes off workforce planning and workplace analytics as a novelty, we are obliged to take our practice into a mode where great work is done quietly, well, and with a known value.  As we look at the legacy of buzzwords that came before us and the shiny new practices to come, there is a new opportunity to understand the boundary between engineering drawings, breaking the ground, and replacing broken parts.  Cultivating and maintaining people, their knowledge, their relationships, and the workplace culture are key to delivering strategy.  There is an opportunity for your employees to age gracefully and keep delivering the goods.

“I’m busy” is the call of the meek (and they shall not inherit the earth)

It's All in the Eyes. By Chris Gilmore
It’s All in the Eyes. Photo courtesy of Chris Gilmore.

Have you ever been stressed and overwhelmed by your workload, but then got the satisfaction of getting a grip of your to-do list?  I manage this several times a month, and I find it empowering and calming.

My favorite part is when I write a fresh list without dragging over the crossed-out items from the prior list. Then I write next to each task the priority number in which I would like to approach them.  After that, I write an new fresh list, prioritized in the order I had chosen.

It turns out I was onto something.  Having a clear sense of purpose and direction is the thing that makes us productive.  And that’s totally different from being busy.

Instead of resorting to the “I’m busy,” proclamation, simply organize your obligations and commitments.  You’ll realize it’s a good thing.

But once things are under control, you lose your bragging rights about being busy.  That’s a bad thing.

“I’m Busy” is a Humblebrag

In an article by Jessica Stillman in Inc.com from 2016, she shares research showing that people who say they are busy are perceived to be more important.  People know the “I’m busy” humblebrag is compelling and they use it liberally.  I think people only say “I’m busy” because others are saying it too.  Kind of like straight people drawing attention to the fact they’re straight, or women’s right activists saying they don’t call themselves feminists.  If there weren’t these crowd-sourced self-impositions to look busy and conform to norms, would we still be grabbing for labels that allow us to fit in and be validated?  Surely it would be easier to bring our best to the workplace and be our usual, weird selves.

As people increasingly say they are busy, the evidence suggests otherwise.  In another article by Stillman she reports data from the U.S. that people are sleeping more and finding more time to watch television compared to a decade ago.  This article was from two years ago when people were still watching televisions instead of being addicted to their phones. On average, people are not more busy.  “It’s not entirely surprising that we fit in all [that]… leisure — the average full-time workweek is a moderate 42 hours.”

Busy People Are Not Always Giving Their Best

In those cases where people are truly busy, it’s not a good thing.  Beyond a certain point people suffer cognitive overload.  In an article in Inc.com from June 2018, Wanda Thibodeaux interviews Fouad ElNaggar, the chief executive of an employee experience portal called Sapho.  ElNaggar cites oft-quoted research that people “…check email 47 times a day… And it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted.  They experience an endless tidal wave of beeps that require an acknowledgement or response and with mobility.”

ElNaggar references research that people compensate for the barrage of interruptions by working faster.  This leaves people stressed-out “…and subsequently, focus, concentration, and creativity – all tank.”  These are not the people who have got into the zone and got a lot of work done exceptionally well.  These are people who are controlled by clients, superiors, Facebook friends, and advertising algorithms coming out of the Silicon Valley.  These are people who have become unimportant.

He asserts responsibility for this problem sits with leadership, but notes individual employees need to share some blame.  He encourages individuals to take control of their calendar and decline meaningless meetings, assign narrow windows to handle email (i.e. not all day long), and keep the cell phone out of the bedroom.

However, this opens two controversial opinions.  One, he presumes we have enough control over our work-day to make these trade-offs.  Only leaders that give employees autonomy can expect employees to improve their work pace for the better. The second is that ElNaggar’s remedies imply you can become more effective by being less busy.

How Productive People Differ from Busy People

In an article from February of 2018, Larry Kim asserts productive people have a mission in their lives, have few priorities, and focus on clarity before action.  “Busy” people want to look like they have a mission, have many priorities, and focus on action regardless of clarity.

Productive people want others to be effective, and busy people want others to be busy.  The list of behaviours and attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but you get a sense of two different styles.

Described in this manner, people who say “I’m busy” are not actually drawing attention to their importance.  Rather, they are broadcasting that they lack focus, have no control, and are short on self-management.  “I’m busy” is a malfunctioning humblebrag, as it serves a backhanded compliment that insults the self.

But it might be early days for this realization.  You might have superiors and influential colleagues who have that busy buzz to them.  If this polarity between productivity and busyness comes into public view, it’s not going to look good for the busy-bees.

The biggest revelation from Kim’s article is that “Productive people make time for what is important.”  Productive people are all about mission, priorities, and focus, and they are allowed to target their time and effort.  If you have ten minutes to spare to get “important” work done, that important work is to consider your values and your mission, and create a fresh draft of your priorities that put everything into perspective.

People might not see you breaking a sweat, but with time you will deliver better results.  But remember, it looks way better when there’s no boasting.  And that will go a lot further after we’ve outed the “I’m busy” call of the meek.

The Thank-You Note – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Pelikan Fountain Pen, by David Blackwell (=)
Pelikan Fountain Pen.  Photo courtesy of David Blackwell.

Do you remember the last time you received a thank-you note?  It felt special, didn’t it?  Strangely, we feel nervous about sending these kinds of notes.  Do thank-you notes actually accomplish anything? Aren’t we supposed to focus on getting real work done?

I pride myself on making a productive contribution to my workplace.  One of the most powerful impacts I have is when I find people who want to use Excel better.  I give them a few tutorials to upgrade their skills, and send them off as a more productive player.  I want more people in our human resources office to open spreadsheets and crank out the numbers themselves.  It lessens the burden on me, and creates an environment where everyone talks freely about the numbers.  And voila, we have the research-influenced workplace.

What is baffling is when people send me thank-you notes and Starbucks gift cards for devoting my precious time to help develop their skills.  Don’t they understand that I am manipulating them to achieve my own selfish goals?  Don’t they understand that I’m an economist?  Who are these social workers and coaches and creatives types, to think they can bring me into their magical world with nothing more than a few words of gratitude?  My cunning plan has gone horribly awry.

What Exactly Are the Rules of Gift Exchange?

Generosity and gratitude are a common source of misunderstanding.  I once got really curious about gift exchange.  It started out as an attempt to understand social norms, but I ended up reading anthropological research about gift-giving in archaic societies. (Of course I did).  I read a couple of books on the topic, including Marcel Mauss’ The Gift (W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1990).  This “gift economy,” just to introduce the Wikipedia page on the topic, makes huge distinctions between the market behaviours of commercial transactions and non-market gift exchange.  This is important to understand, because showing up at work every day is a market activity.  But if it’s a good workplace, colleagues act like they are in the same tribe.

Gift exchange has many subtle rules that are similar across cultures and across time.  There is usually a time lag between gift-giving moments.  The giving of a gift places the other person in debt, and the gift must be repaid for fear the relationship could be severed.  There is a tendency towards reciprocity and balance, and attempts to profit from the exchange are mostly taboo.  The dynamic fosters qualitative relationships, as opposed to the quantitative relationships of market trade.

Also, those who are obliged to accept charitable gifts feel a sense of being poisoned and stigmatized, as they are unable to keep things even.  You can subjugate vulnerable populations by staying one-up on them with gift-giving.  Who says anthropologists can’t learn a trick or two from economists?

Thank-You Notes are Undervalued

I see thank-you notes as a key part of gift exchange.  The notes acknowledge an exchange of good-will.  They place, in writing, that gratitude has been established.  There is the implication that a favour might be returned one day, or paid-forward to a third party.  Thank-you notes formalize that an emotional thread has been established between giver and recipient.  Society is a web of such threads, and we weave ourselves into this web as it entangles us in obligations, for better or worse.

In an article at the British Psychological Society, Christian Jarrett reviews research conducted by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Elpey on expressions of gratitude.  The researchers asked participants to send thank-you notes to people who had contributed to their lives in a meaningful way.  The researchers then followed-up with the recipients to ask how they felt.

“The senders of the thank-you letters consistentlyunderestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be.” (Emphasis added)

These misjudgments discouraged people from sending the thank-you notes in the first place.  The authors note that withholding this gratitude is to refrain from “a powerful act of civility.”  The notes benefit both the recipient and the sender, as the sender is perceived to be more competent.

Is Formal Recognition a Meaningful Workplace Practice?

In addition to hand-written notes and kudos emails, some workplaces have formalized recognition programs that distribute points between employees.  All employees are given points to distribute to someone other than themselves (just to be clear), and there’s an electronic system to keep score.  Top givers and top receivers are profiled on a periodic basis, and sometimes points can be cashed in for swag or experiences.  A quick internet search reveals programs such as Kudos, Achievers, Point Recognition, and Terryberry.  Terryberry has a great infographic detailing the benefits of these programs, referencing credible sources at the bottom of the page.

In terms of effectiveness, recognition programs cause higher customer satisfaction, better employee engagement, and staff turnover that is about 24-31% lower, depending on the study.  To clarify, if your turnover rate used to be 8% and it dropped to 6%, that’s a 25% reduction in turnover.

These programs net a massive value proposition.  If a company spends 1% of payroll on these programs, 85% see a positive impact.  Delta Airlines saw a 564% return on their investment.  Massive percentage returns are often the result of an incredibly low denominator.  That is, if Delta spent 1% of payroll and saw a 6.64% increase in productivity, that is consistent with a 564% return.  But it’s nothing to sniff at.  If you know of people trying to earn more than 10% per year on the stock market, you would have to acknowledge that recognition is far more impactful than anything being pushed to you by bankers.

Incentive Plans and Recognition Programs Are Very Different

A key detail that must not be missed, is that recognition programs bear little resemblance to formal incentive plans.  In Alfie Kohn’s 1999 book Punished by Rewards, he details how performance-contingent rewards (i.e. do this and you’ll get that) cause behaviours that largely decrease business effectiveness.  When you offer an employee a 10% target bonus for exhibiting certain behaviours, they tend to minimize risk, abandon creativity, game the system, and express severe outrage when they get less than the maximum bonus.  And so, this 10% bonus achieves approximately zero return on investment, and possibly a negative return.

The issue is that people don’t like to be controlled by overlords, and incentive plans are inherently controlling.  Incentive plans have a scientific legacy that they are designed by people who make no distinction between humans and rodents.

By contrast, recognition systems are expressions of warm-feeling and a sense of emerging qualitative relationships between peers.  When you exchange thanks with peers, you love them a little.

So, reflect on your week and think about those who helped you achieve your goals.  Get past that misinformed sense that expressing gratitude will create discomfort.  Establish those threads of good-will between peers, and weave together an archaic society of those who can keep things even.  It makes you more competent.  It makes you human again.