Recognition – why don’t we do more of it?

by Matt Grimshaw
April 4, 2017

How does it feel when someone gives you a bit of praise or says “well done”?

It’s pretty good isn’t it? Especially when it feels genuine, authentic and like you earned it.

Everyone I know appreciates recognition, especially when it comes from a respected leader, manager or colleague. And according to neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman there’s a good reason why we all seem to appreciate positive feedback.

In his absolutely fascinating book Social, Lieberman looks at why humans are much more collaborative than all other animals. His research suggests that one of the key factors for our social nature is that our brains process social pleasures and pains in much the same way as they process physical pleasures and pains.

The reason a broken heart hurts like a broken leg is because your brain processes the two experiences in a similar way. As far as your brain is concerned, the social pain is as real as the physical one. And the same is true of social pleasures – they give the brain the same ‘kick’ as a physical pleasure would do.

Recognition is a great example of a social pleasure.

Managers who recognise their teams have the same impact on their brains as if they were giving their teams a physical reward (without the added cost).

Recognition is a reward. It makes us feel good, like we’re valued and appreciated. And yet, perversely, most organisations I know don’t recognise their people frequently enough.

If recognition is like having a free pot of incentives, why don’t organisations do more of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, but here’s a few thoughts to get you started:

  1. We assume recognition means more to us than others. We know we like to receive praise, but we think other people would find it patronising or that they’re more motivated by cold hard cash. You can see an example of this in this lego re-enactment of an experiment about how to wrap up a bonus.
  2. We feel awkward about praising one another. We’d rather give impersonal bonuses or create company award schemes than have to say a simple “well done” with a degree of emotional coherence.
  3. We don’t have good examples to copy — it’s just not British! There’s something about giving recognition and praise that feels counter cultural (there’s more on this in my blog about why it’s so hard to say “well done”). I can’t think of many managers I know who make a habit of frequently and effectively recognising their team.

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