What You Can Learn From A Kindergartner

March 6, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

What can five-year-olds teach us about social recognition? Rather a lot, it turns out.

A recent study of five year olds by researchers at Yale University has turned up something very interesting about the generosity of human nature when it is made public and social. When researchers offered kindergartners a chance to give stickers to their peers, the children were significantly more likely to be generous if they knew they would be observed, and would be given credit for their generosity.

There were two variables in the study: whether or not someone was observing (visible) and whether that observer could tell how many stickers the child gifted (transparency).  The adult version of this, in recognition terms, would be to talk about public (visible) appreciation that lets you see the exact nature of the award—the message of appreciation it contains (transparency). What Yale found was that transparency and visibility make a huge difference in encouraging children to be generous—I’ve simplified the results in the chart, below.

Pychologists call generosity prosocial behavior—which is “the phenomenon of people helping each other with no thought of reward or compensation.” Obviously, prosocial behavior is something most of us want to encourage in our workplaces, because generosity of spirit is a key element of teamwork and relationship building. And the results of this study mirrors what happens with adults when their actions are also made transparent and visible. In fact, five year olds behave an awful lot like thirty-five year olds, when it comes to sharing with others:

Have a look at this quote from the study, talking about adult prosocial behavior:

Although they may not be aware of it, adults appear to be selective about the situations in which they choose to act prosocially. Specifically, adults often maximize their performance of generous acts in situations in which there is an audience present to witness their actions.

That doesn’t mean we’re all Machiavellians who won’t do anything without getting something from it, but it DOES mean that we’re aware of the way we are viewed, and how our actions might reflect upon us. And we act accordingly, because our reputations are important to us. After all, who doesn’t want to be seen as an appreciative team player?

As HR professionals and managers, we spend a lot of time thinking about the terrific effects of peer-to-peer recognition on those being recognized, but what this study (and others like it) is pointing out is the effect of public, social recognition on the givers of recognition.

In effect, every time a recognition moment is public and social, we’re getting a double bang for our buck. We’re getting all the positive effects of social recognition on the receiver of recognition. But we’re also re-affirming the award nominator, and encouraging them to participate in our culture of recognition. By making the recognition process public and transparent, we encourage those givers of recognition to step forward and participate. And that is recognition that they may well have not given if there wasn’t a formal, public, social recognition program in place.

That doubles the impact of each recognition moment, and it encourages broader participation in your culture of appreciation.

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