Abraham Lincoln, like most experienced and overworked leaders, knew the power of simple praise. “Everyone likes a compliment,” he wrote to a New York congressman who had just tipped his stovepipe to Lincoln’s second inaugural speech in 1865.
Politicians use compliments as regular currency, but it’s still likely the 16th president enjoyed a dopamine rush from receiving credit as much as anyone in a tough job. After all, from the brain’s perspective, regular thanks, demonstrations of gratitude, and recognition of hard work feel like money in the bank: Research has shown the same reward circuit is activated when we process affirmations as when we receive financial rewards.
And with high job turnover still in full swing, employers have to add other sources of affirmation to accompany rising wages. A recent New York Times story suggests a greater focus on worker appreciation could help, since it has been shown to lower turnover, cut absenteeism, and even reduce on-the-job accidents.
Getting close to whatever activates your workers’ reward system has never been more important, and yet it’s also become more difficult. In the era of Zoom, there aren’t as many opportunities to conjure up small talk compared to when we used to walk to a conference room with colleagues or run into one another in the break room. Meetings now start and end like a switch that’s flipped, prompting us to jump right into agendas before authentic conversations can happen.
Combined with the fact that our brains tend to go toward negative thoughts more easily than positive ones, it’s no wonder we’re more likely to connect for problem-solving instead of for credit-giving.
Of course, a troubled relationship between remote work and performance recognition predated the pandemic, with managers struggling to figure out how to mitigate the “out of sight, out of mind” trap remote workers face. Part of that is due to distance bias — our natural preference for people and things closer to us than those farther away. And while giving credit alone won’t completely mitigate distance bias, praise is a powerful motivator that makes us more collaborative, open, and willing to learn — infinitely valuable currency whether you’re at a conference table or on a screen hundreds of miles away.
Here’s how to start bringing back the lost art of giving credit.
Learn the employee’s reward system.
Not everyone processes appreciation the same way, making it important to understand what kind of recognition and feedback each employee values. Our SCARF® Model provides a shortcut that identifies five core social needs every person has:
- Status, or wanting to feel esteemed
- Certainty, or wanting context and clarity
- Autonomy, or having a sense of control over your outcome
- Relatedness, or wanting to connect
- Fairness, or feeling you’re treated equally
The more connections at work can satisfy each of those domains, the more satisfied people will feel. The key, though, is ensuring you understand individuals’ motivations; if you get them wrong, your praise could feel like punishment. For example, a worker who scores high on status may love a personal shout-out during a department-wide meeting, while someone who isn’t motivated by status may feel embarrassed by the attention and would’ve preferred receiving a compliment in private.
Make impromptu calls about praise — and praise alone.
For many, an unexpected email or text with a request to “jump on a quick call” doesn’t bring about the most pleasant of feelings. But consider using a quick video chat for nothing but praise every once in a while. Remember to be as specific as possible in your acknowledgement. “You’re great,” could describe a lot of people, but “You’re great because you found a way to combine three steps of the approval process, which saves our team time,” provides clear feedback on what you really valued and how it affected others, which is far more intrinsically rewarding.
Track your credit giving.
Many organizations put tech-based peer-to-peer feedback tools in place before the pandemic, but to hold yourself accountable to giving more credit, experiment with documenting the way you’ve delivered feedback or praise throughout the week. You’ll not only have a record of who’s getting credit and why, you’ll have a chance to be more thoughtful about how you’re identifying good performance and whether your praising capabilities are agnostic to where employees work from. It’ll help with year-end reviews, too.
Let employees take the wheel.
Who says managers are the only ones who can praise employees? Sometimes the best credit can come from team members. One way to encourage this practice is to ask for individual “shout outs” at group meetings so that colleagues can praise each other, and non-team members can learn about contributions and problem-solving happening in other organizational departments. Because at the end of the day, one of the best aspects of giving credit is making others feel valued and appreciated.
Author: Lisa Holton