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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Genuine Recognition as a Motivating Driver

Genuine Recognition as a Motivating Driver

In this podcast, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Dr Natalie Baumgartner of Achievers Workforce Institute about the recently released State of Engagement report, how recognition needs to be far more than just lip service and how managers can engage effectively with their people.

Key Takeaways

  • Employees around the entire globe re-evaluated what work means for them and where they find meaning and value in work
  • Being recognised and appreciated is one of the most significant motivation factors for most employees today
  • To be meaningful recognition needs to be specific, something about me as an individual, and some way in which I made a difference to you
  • 75% of employees who are recognized at work would recommend their manager to others
  • Contact, curiosity and recognition are keys to effective manager/employee relationships

Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I'm sitting down with Dr. Natalie Baumgartner from the Achievers Workforce Institute. Dr. Natalie, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Thanks so much for having me, Shane. Happy to be here.

Shane Hastie: Probably a useful starting point is, who are you?

Introductions [00:27]

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Well, you heard the doctor in my name. So I am a business psychologist, and I have spent my whole career focusing on the world of the employee experience. So working with organizations from entrepreneurial startups to Fortune 500 organizations, really focused on what are the factors that allow organizations to provide a great experience for their employees? My PhD's in clinical psychology, but I really focus on strength-based psychology and all the things that make workplaces great places to be at. And as you mentioned, I work with Achievers.

So Achievers is an employee experience platform that provides a number of technological resources that help organizations truly engage their people. And the Workforce Institute within Achievers is the research and science arm. So we are a bunch of, I like to say, engagement nerds, I myself am a self professed nerd, who really focuses on ensuring that everything that we do at Achievers, from the technology we develop to the thought leadership we share, is rooted in science that is focused on changing the way the world works, which is our mission.

Shane Hastie: Thank you very much. And that certainly aligns well with a lot of the work we do here in the culture and methods team on InfoQ, so I'm excited, I'm interested. Possibly a starting point is the state of recognition report that was recently released. Tell us about that.

The State of Recognition report [01:48]

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Yeah, happy to. We have four quarterly research reports that come out of the Achievers Workforce Institute each year. And this was our Q2 report, was the state of recognition report. Our focus was really on understanding the sea change that has occurred in the business arena. I don't think anyone lacks a window into the reality that employees have really by and large around the entire globe re-evaluated what work means for them and where they find meaning and value in work, how and when they want to work. And part of our focus was on why are people voting with their feet and leaving organizations, and what is it they really want and need in their work life and their work experience? And so this report really is empowering, we believe, change in the new world of work.

Shane Hastie: What is it that people are looking for?

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Great question. I've worked in this arena for a couple of decades now, and I would say this is both the most interesting and inspiring period of that time that I've focused on the employee experience. Because employees, rather than beating the drum only or mostly around compensation or benefits, perhaps promotion in their career and so on, the focus has really been on the importance of having a deep sense of belonging and fulfilment at work and having sustainable work-life integration, and of course then continuing to progress in their career.

So we found that one of the single most powerful tools that's really driving this experience of connection and belonging at work and purpose that employees are really mandating from their organizations is the tool of recognition. And one of the sharpest findings we found is that from recognition frequency to what makes recognition meaningful, that we have some insight, more than we ever have had before, about how leaders can create a culture of recognition and belonging in the workplace to drive engagement and productivity and job commitment.

Shane Hastie: Let's go right down to first principles. What do we mean when we say recognition?

Recognition matters [03:46]

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner:  I think as humans, we can all pause and think about a time when someone has really seen us and appreciated us as a unique individual and for doing something that's really meaningful that has stood out. And so that's what we refer to when we use the term recognition. It's really what many of us think about as appreciation or even gratitude. And Shane, you and I were just chatting before we started talking on this podcast about how it feels when someone really sees the great contribution you've made and acknowledges it, and even more powerfully, acknowledges it in a meaningful way, and even better, in a public way, so that you really feel like the hard work you're doing, the effort you're putting in is truly having an impact.

Shane Hastie: If I think of a lot of our audience, we are the technologists, we're stereotypically a little bit introverted, going to be a little bit uncomfortable even with some of this, certainly the public recognition, aren't we?

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Yes. And that's something that we dove into a little bit, because before we were really gathering this kind of rigorous data, I too was a little dubious around whether the concept of public was so critical in terms of the impact that recognition can have. And when I say public, what I really mean is that it is powerful for one to hear appreciation or recognition from one's direct manager in a meeting when they're operating solo. And if we take that same appreciation and amplify it by sharing it in a newsletter or sharing it on a recognition platform, when we ask employees, regardless of wiring or personality or role type or industry, we find that employees say it felt really good. It felt good to be appreciated in that way. And to have it not be shouted from the rooftops literally, in a way that might be quite embarrassing, but just shared with one's cohort and colleagues, and especially if it's something that feels really true and meaningful.

Shane Hastie: There's something important there, the really true and meaningful. How do we prevent this from being, dare I say, lip service?

The need for sincerity and genuine recognition [06:03]

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: I'm so glad you asked about that, because one of our objectives in this particular research report was to dive in a little bit more deeply to understand what makes the recognition meaningful for employees. So, we actually for many years had some assumptions, I mean some criteria that we thought were the right ones to provide an experience where someone would hear a recognition and say, "Oh yeah, that feels really good to me, it feels really meaningful." But we challenged ourselves and said, let's ask employees. And what we found is 64% of employees said, first of all, that they would prefer more meaningful recognition as opposed to more frequent. The majority of employees said, I'd rather get fewer recognitions, but have them be really meaningful than mere lip surface, to use your word, Shane. And in addition, we found, we identified a few factors that employees rallied around in terms of what makes a recognition meaningful.

Factors that make recognition meaningful and real [06:54]

So the top three factors that were identified were that the recognition was about something specific that I did. So not, "Thanks, Shane, for doing a great podcast," but, "Thanks for creating this really interesting conversation in your podcast about this topic of recognition and really bringing insightful lens to the conversation." Two, that it was something about me as an individual or about something I value. So in this case, I love getting the opportunity to give you some recognition change in real time. So, "Shane, the way that you have such a comfortable conversational style clearly put your interview at ease and your sense of humor also really came through." And then three is that it's about the way in which I made a difference to the person who sent me the recognition.

So it could be, "And I'm so glad that you have this podcast on recognition because for me as a manager, I'm a new manager, I'm really trying to understand what are the most important things for me to do to help my team members feel valued and to have a great sense of engagement at work. And so this has really helped me become a better manager." So something specific, something about me as an individual, and some way in which I made a difference to you.

Shane Hastie: And I feel it. Thank you. From personal experience and that conversation, I do feel more engaged, more motivated. So it works. Who would've thought it?

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Powerful. It's powerful. Do you know that 75% of employees who are recognized at work would recommend their manager to others? And I share that because even for me, when I moved into this area of understanding this aspect of engagement recognition, many years ago now, I thought, how powerful can it really be? This is about saying thank you. And it gives us some insight into who we are as humans that we really value it, that it really feeds and fuels us. And so even if you feel sceptical as a manager about the importance of doing this, or you feel uncomfortable, and so you're like, I think I'm going to go put that over to the side of my desk and do some things that I know I'm good at that don't make me sort of hesitate and feel like I'm not going to be able to deliver.

I would encourage you to put it back in the middle of your desk and give it a try, because employees who are recognized at work not only have higher levels of engagement, are much more likely to stay in their job, are more productive, but they also recommend their manager to others. They find they have a stronger and more powerful and more positive relationship with the person that leads them.

Shane Hastie: A lot of direct benefits there to the employee-manager relationship. What about to the employee-company relationship?

Recognition helps with retention [09:33]

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Right. Well, I think one of the things that's top of mind right now for organizations is both retention and finances. So we know that individuals that are recognized weekly are twice as likely as average to have strong job commitment and five times more likely than those never recognized to say that they rarely think about job hunting. Those are some pretty powerful stats when you're thinking about how to retain your workforce or attract a workforce. And two thirds of respondents say that feeling recognized actually reduces their desire to job hunt. In addition, on the financial side, and we know that a lot of organizations are focusing on tightening their belts right now and being concerned about a global downturn economically, 52% of employees say feeling recognized for their work would reduce the negative impact of a salary freeze. And on top of that, employees rank social recognition as most important, 42%, before low monetary recognition and infrequent high monetary recognition.

What does that mean In a nutshell? It means that it's so powerful that employees who feel well-recognized are willing to perhaps kind of sit where they are at in terms of salary and to continue to stay inside their organization. But if finances are an issue to such an extent that there isn't money in the bank to make recognition a monetary feature in your organization, social recognition, which is simply recognizing for the sake of recognizing, is actually more important even to employees than receiving that gift card with that recognition. So it's actually something that organizations can do with very little budget and resource and it has a massive outsize impact on their ability to retain employees.

Shane Hastie: What's the disconnect between what HR policies and... What we think we're doing and what we are actually achieving?

The disconnect between what HR thinks and what is actually happening [11:24]

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: One of the interesting findings we have surfaced in several, actually, of our recent research studies on recognition, on wellbeing, on diversity and inclusion, is that we're continuing to see a disconnect between how HR leaders feel they're doing, or their organization is doing in providing the supports and nurturing that employees need versus how employees feel like they're doing and receiving it. So HR leaders are, I think, really well-intended, but tend to think, "We're doing okay," and employees are saying, "I'm not really feeling it." And so that's something just to be aware of. We have seen that several times now in our research and it has caused us to encourage organizations to not assume that just because they have practices that are in place to help and support employees, that they're the right ones or that they're landing in the right way with their employees. So this is my opportunity to remind organizations, you need to ask employees, how are you doing?

Whether you're using a voice of employee tool or you're doing focus groups or having your managers have one-on-one conversations, you need to be asking and you need to not assume. In addition, when it comes to recognition specifically, we know that regular training on how to recognize well, so recognition best practices, is really crucial, and for developing and nurturing a culture of recognition. It's not complicated, it just requires understanding a few basic principles. And the data in this research report showed a disconnect between leaders and employees on that training.

And what I mean by that is 9 out of 10 HR leaders said that they provide recognition training to their staff, at least once, about how do you recognize what are the ground rules? And meanwhile, less than half, 41% of employees said they have received any training at all. So we know 90% and 41% are pretty different numbers, and it tells us that we have a little ways to go as organizations in terms of ensuring that we're not only providing the opportunity for our leaders and managers to recognize by providing budget or resource, but we really need to make sure that we're providing training that feels really effective to our managers on how to do it well.

Shane Hastie: Going a little bit wider, if we may, thinking of a fair percentage of our audience, these are relatively new managers, promoted often from a technical background. How do we support these people to become better leaders?

Advice for new leaders [13:51]

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Well, we know that so often really successful employees are promoted into positions of leadership with very little to none, often, training around what are the most important factors to focus on? How do you become a really great manager? So I encourage a few things. One, we have actually a manager empowerment model at the Achievers Workforce Institute that we focus on. And we know that to keep it really simple, that there are just a few things that if managers focus on, have the most powerful impact on their team members' experience. So one is contact, and that became so clear during the pandemic, that simply having that one on one time with your team member, whether it's in person or remote, can't be replaced by any other factor. It is the most important factor for managers to be committing to and delivering and having real conversations. Secondly, when you're having that conversation, asking your team member what they need. What they need in terms of development, what they need in terms of support. Again, it's really important not to guess.

And so that actually in a way makes your job easier. You don't have to be a mind reader as a manager. You simply need to ask the question around how can I help you get to where you want to be, develop in the way that you want to develop? And certainly, recognizing. We know that if you are going to have one takeaway from this conversation, it would be that providing a meaningful recognition once a month at the minimum to each member of your team has a tremendous impact on how your team's going to feel in their job, how they're going to feel about you, and the likelihood that they'll stay and continue to do a great job for you. So focusing on those factors keeps it simple. None of those require some massive amount of extensive, expensive training. It's really about making the time, having the contact, asking people what they need, doing your best to deliver on it or to get them in touch with someone who can, and then recognizing them for what they're doing well.

Shane Hastie: Sounds such a simple formula, and yet so often we get it wrong.

Managers experience pressures from all directions [15:57]

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Well, I think it's very easy to become overwhelmed as a manager. During the pandemic, we found, and this is certainly not exclusive to the pandemic, but in the height of the pandemic, we found that managers were really the meat in the sandwich. They're getting pulled in both directions. They're needing to provide support and resource to their employees and also deliver to the people above them. And so it is challenging, especially to be a new manager, and especially to be a new manager without much training or development on how to do it. It's very challenging to do oftentimes your day job still, the job that you were doing before you became a manager or some aspect of it, plus nurturing and supporting the people beneath you.

I think having a lot of empathy for that challenge is really important, but keeping it simple. So that's why I referenced, if you're having contact, if you're helping to develop and provide feedback, and if you're recognizing your employees, even each of those just a little bit has a tremendous effect on how your team is going to function. And all that comes back to you then, because then you'll feel that in return, and then what develops is a really positive cycle.

Shane Hastie: Something that sits in my mind is, we know this as managers dealing with operational people and direct reports. Do we forget it as we rise through the hierarchy? It feels like it.

The lack of effective management and leadership training [17:18]

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: I think often it's that the job or the task, the list of responsibilities, the pressure, it's not that it's not significant at every level, but it gets heftier and weightier as we move up in the ranks of an organization. So I think that's one factor, is that often it gets pushed to the bottom of the list because there are so many things that have risen above it, that we know in reality they're not more important, but they oftentimes have more energy behind them, especially from the people above us. And so that's one factor, I think, that's really real. And I think it's also true that especially for most of us who don't have training on how to do this well, as the to-do list gets bigger, it is human nature to naturally gravitate towards the things that we really know how to solve, either because we have expertise in it or because it's very straightforward or it's not uncomfortable, there isn't emotion attached to it. And that is natural.

It is typical of us as humans that we do that. And so it's easier to check off the box on something that we either know how to do or that's very straightforward, black and white. And that means that the softer but equally powerful, in terms of their impact on business performance, softer factors don't get the attention that they really need. And that builds and results in what ends up being actually an incredibly negative impact on organizational performance. My experience is if we can give our managers just some support, some direction, keep it straightforward, don't overcomplicate what's most important, that's a great service. In my decades of working with leaders and managers, I have met very few who show up at work each day intending to disengage their people. Nobody wants that. That's not anyone's intent. And so we can make it easy for managers to be able to support the people beneath them, that we see it happen, but we do have to empower them. We do have to support them.

Shane Hastie: A lot of really interesting and powerful stuff there. Dr. Natalie, if people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: Please. I would love for you to reach out. I am on LinkedIn, so Natalie Baumgartner. I'm on Twitter, ask_dr_nat. And of course, I really would encourage you to check out the Achievers website. On there, you'll see a link to the Workforce Institute, and there you can access our research reports and other thought leadership we have and other ways to get in touch with us and to become a member of the Workforce, which is no cost, no strings attached. We're, like I said, a bunch of nerdy scientists who are dedicated to using research and data to change the way the world works.

Shane Hastie: Wonderful. Thank you so much. And I'll make sure we include those links.

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner: It was a pleasure talking with you. Thanks very much, Shane.


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