Do They Know?
I’ve always thought it would be helpful to read minds. Then we’d know. We’d know what people think and not have to worry about the whole assumptions-thing, and could actually deal with what is real. But then again…we’d know…right?! And that would certainly come with its own set of complications. But since we can’t actually read minds we have to bring some mindfulness around letting others in on what’s going on inside our brains, and not assume that they know.
A number of years ago I was working with a company in Chicago leading a series of sessions for a group of managers and all their direct reports. During one of our conversations focused on recognition, a young guy, let’s call him Jeff*, said “You know Kimberly, I got a bonus last quarter and it really made me mad.” I could see the irritation written all over his face, but couldn’t figure out why in the world someone would be upset about getting a bonus… As he talked more, it all started to make sense. You see this company had been going through some very difficult times. Massive layoffs, a change in leadership, and a multitude of other issues had left the culture in tatters. Their stock had tanked. Morale was a mess. Fear and mistrust were rampant.
Shaking his head in frustration, he said, “All year long I thought I was going to be the next person riffed – over half our team got cut. I kept working harder and harder, but my boss never said anything. I had no idea that he was happy with my performance until the bonus showed up in my paycheck! Why didn’t he tell me he thought I was doing a good job?! Going to work every day has been hell. Eight months of sheer hell. If I knew that he was happy with my work it would have made a huge difference.”
It’s easy to see how this can happen. If we’re to step into his manager’s shoes (the middle-guy in a train-wreck-culture, who is trying to survive and prove himself like anyone else would be in that environment), we’d probably be focused on the problems that need to be fixed. We’d probably think to ourselves, “I don’t have to worry about Jeff, because Jeff is doing well.” When bonus time rolled around it would make sense that Jeff would get one. Jeff should know, we’d think, that he’s doing a good job. He’s still here after all!
Recognition is one of those things that many leaders consider a nice-to-have. It often gets a bad wrap with folks who think that it’s all about the numbers and that people with a true high-performance-mindset shouldn’t need it. But unless these folks are working with computers instead of human beings, they’re sorely mistaken. Human beings at work need recognition as much as they need a paycheck.
Let’s go back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
In a culture where there’s as much turmoil as the one I described – in which there are rampant layoffs – people don’t feel safe. When their work group is being decimated and they’re not getting feedback from their boss, they don’t feel like they belong, can’t determine whether they’re achieving, or what their boss thinks about them in terms of reputation. And what we know from Maslow’s work is that if the more foundational needs aren’t met, then the higher-level needs like growth and fulfillment aren’t even a possibility.
No one can be their best or do their best work in that environment. If you have a high performer who is still hitting their metrics in the face of these crushing odds, imagine what s/he could do with a little recognition?
Simple acts of recognition would restore their sense of safety, of belonging, let them know they’re on the right track in terms of achievement, that their reputation is in-tact, and allow them to focus on things that are adding more value to the company while experiencing a sense of growth and fulfillment.
My friend Alise is in the midst of doing some extensive research around engagement and the meaning of work and last night over dinner she was telling me that what’s showing up in her research is that value that is not recognized – verbalized – doesn’t even count. In other words, you may think someone is awesome, that they do awesome work, that they make a difference – and they may even sense that you think that – but unless they hear it from you out loud, it doesn’t matter. It won’t “move their dial” (as Alise likes to say) in terms of engagement and fulfillment. And what was really interesting, is that this was even showing up for people who are impact (or purpose) driven. Even though these people are more focused on what they can do/give to the world – making an impact – rather than what they can get back, they still need recognition to experience fulfillment. And I totally get that – they need to know that what they did had the impact they’re hoping to have – that they hit the mark.
Look, I know we’re all doing the best that we can. Most of us are carrying immense responsibilities and are giving a Herculean effort to get more done in a day than one person should ever have to do. You are extraordinary. And there are a whole lotta people surrounding you in your life – at work, at home, in your community – who are also extraordinary. Who need to be seen for the value they bring. Don’t assume they know. Tell them.
“What you do matters. This is why it matters to me…. Thank you.”
*All names have been changed to protect those who should’ve been recognized by more than a bonus check.
©OnStage Leadership, 2014
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