Change Agent Tip #14: Throw ‘Em a Bone!

Oct 19, 2011 No Comments by

Many teams struggle to maintain positive morale through the long slog of a project. Today’s tip is simple to understand but surprisingly difficult for many Change Agents and Sponsors to follow through on. I call it: “Throw ‘Em a Bone”.

The idea is to make sincere team appreciation an active, planned part of your project. To that end, here are 5 simple rules I use to help teams create an atmosphere in which everyone feels recognized and valued:

1. Reward Results. Recognize Effort. Most teams set performance targets and many give out rewards when the targets are reached.  But don’t forget to recognize the effort that goes into those results.

This recognition can be especially critical to avoid the appearance of an “all or nothing” de-motivating loss when a team comes close – yet falls just short of a goal. Active appreciation also helps reduce the sting for teams that might be thinking of “throwing in the towel” when it looks like a goal simply cannot be reached.

Again, the bottom line here is that everyone expects to be rewarded for successful business results. The truly great teams also recognize each others’ contributions regardless of the measurable outcome.

2. Be specific about the behaviors you want to see. Many teams operate on the assumption that everyone is a professional and they just know how they are expected to behave.

In reality, effective teamwork is not necessarily a given. It can help to use ground rules and guiding principles to clearly define desired behaviors.  For example, if your project team is implementing some huge innovations or potentially challenging process changes, you may want to focus on rewarding team behaviors that support the premise of the project such as:

  • being open to new ideas
  • encouraging brainstorming and avoiding “shooting down” ideas to early
  • demonstrating collaboration instead of information-hoarding
  • focusing on the team’s goals above individual notoriety

Red Flag: I have also found that it’s best to work with the team to generate the list of desired behaviors very early in the project so your recognition activities don’t appear to be a negative reaction to someone “misbehaving”!

3. Be consistent about granting appreciation. Make recognition a part of the weekly and daily work cycle. Good examples I have seen include random daily walk-throughs where the Project Manager, Team Leads, Change Agents or Sponsors just “touch base” with a different person every day.

A visit or a phone call will always trump an email. But any of these interactions are better than silence. This informal, personal interaction sows the seeds for on-going access and honest conversation. It also demonstrates a real, tangible interest in the team’s work.

4. Personal, informal recognition is more effective than an “Employee of the Month” award. The classic rotating recognition program has become something of a joke in most professional work settings so jumping on that bandwagon will probably cause more harm than good. It singles out individuals when most big things are accomplished in a team setting. It often breeds resentment and suspicions of favoritism.

Instead, I encourage team leaders to be real about what recognition team members really want from you. They already get a paycheck, so additional money is probably not a strong motivator. They probably have a few chunks of Lucite on their desks already, so a trophy might not impact their work / life happiness quotient.

What countless workplace satisfaction studies have shown is that the average team member wants to know that their work is appreciated. By far the most desired expression of that appreciation is a face-to-face conversation in which the words “thank you” are used and the person saying those words demonstrates sincerity by actually articulating exactly what behaviors and accomplishments are most appreciated.

5. Just Do It. Finally, the biggest downfall of most recognition programs is that they lose steam when the business of the real project hits. The hardest part of any appreciation effort appears to be the follow-through. To overcome this challenge I offer two pointers that have worked for me and my clients:

Know your team. Whether you keep it all in your head, maintain “smart cards” or jot it on a page in your notebook; take the time to learn their names, know a little bit about them personally and at least understand their primary areas of contribution to the team.

Track your interaction. This can also be done in any number of administrative ways, but it’s critical that you don’t allow weeks or months to go by without having interacted with teams, sub-teams and individual team members. I suggest you can track it in your journal or a notebook or the back of a napkin – but I’ve noticed that those who track appreciation interaction tend to get around to doing it.

Summary: I’m a big fan of using rewards and recognition in a team setting. I’ve been a part of teams that contributed well beyond what was expected simply because they knew the extra effort was sincerely appreciated.

But I’ve also seen many organizations struggle to deliver on this appreciation when the pressure of project delivery hits. In some cases the utter lack of demonstrated appreciation has such a negative effect on team morale that productivity nosedives. The good news: this situation is completely avoidable on most projects if Sponsors, Team Leaders and Change Agents show the way.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What negative impacts can occur when a deserving person gets left off of the list for recognition?
  2. Do you have an “Employee of the Month Award” horror story?

Change Agent Skills, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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