The Swiss Army Knife for Driving Good Behavior

October 11, 2013 Thad Peterson

When it comes to behavioral change, employee recognition is an all-purpose tool. You can think of it as being a bit like a Swiss Army knife. And all leaders—regardless of title—within your organization should be comfortable using it.

Fundamentally, when people are recognized and acknowledged, it allows them—and also everyone who observes it—to see what “good” performance and behavior looks like. It creates models of behavior that people can repeat and emulate.

Now to be clear, “good” looks a lot different from one company to the next. What looks good to an 80,000-person financial institution looks a heck of a lot different than what looks good to a regional restaurant chain, and that looks nothing like what good looks like at an oil services company. And that’s to be expected. But people within those organizations need to know what good looks like within the context of that organization.

It’s that aspiration to help employees understand “what good looks like” that leads so many companies to create an established set of core values. These values are meant to give guidance about how people in the organization should behave.

And rest assured, core values are critically important to employees. Values are the underpinning of community, and most people crave a sense of community. While the majority of us do in fact work for a paycheck, we are inspired by working for organizations that are deeply committed to a set of values. In its research, Modern Survey found that when employees feel that the company values are “clearly known and understood by people in the company,” those employees are 30 times more likely to be highly engaged than those in companies where the values weren’t clearly known and understood.

This gets back to why recognizing is the Swiss Army knife of behavioral change. Every time you recognize someone’s accomplishments, you’re guiding them towards the behavior the organization wants to see. You’re taking a step towards the company values being “clearly known and understood by people in the company.” Highlighting big and small accomplishments connects the dots between the values and the everyday behaviors. It brings those values to life. By recognizing people who are embracing the company’s values, you show everyone what good looks like.

Here are some of the keys to using recognition as the ultimate tool for behavioral change:

  • Make it timely: The closer the feedback is to the behavior that spurred it, the more impactful it is.
  • Make it specific: Don’t offer platitudes; offer specific praise about precisely what was done that you’d like to see happening more.
  • Make it public within your organization (assuming it’s appropriate): When you praise people publicly within the company, there are several benefits. For one, allowing other people to chime in helps to validate and strengthen the recognition moment. For another, it calls everyone’s attention to the behavior that you want to see replicated.
  • Make it personal: This one may be difficult for those of us inclined to keep an arm’s length from our coworkers. But showing appreciation is a fundamentally human and personal act, so try to get comfortable being as human and personal as you can be when showing it.
  • Make it frequent: People crave recognition for their efforts and contributons, so when they deserve it, give it to them. Consider this question: When’s the last time you heard someone complain that they get recognized for their efforts too often?

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“You either lead by example or you don’t lead at all.”
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Lead by example and establish a habit of employee recognition, as Doug Conant did with Campbell's.