Recognition of a Higher Purpose

Taylor + Canyon 2

L -R: Taylor Blue Waters, Canyon Red Ryder

Although she displays undisputed dignity and grace, especially when it comes to aging and her blindness, my 13-year-old dog Taylor is an unabashed food slut. She will do anything, even swallow a bitter pill (literally), if the process involves a tasty treat.

While Canyon, my other dog, appreciates people food as much as any pet, he will not prostitute himself out for it. He is so principled that he will even skip meals for a couple of days if he uncovers a pill hidden in liverwurst or peanut butter inside his food bowl.

When it comes to recognition, I can act like both my dogs. Like Canyon with medication, I can ferret out an insincere compliment. It hardens me and makes me distrustful. On the other hand, I’ll give 200% for someone who sincerely recognizes my contributions, even when the exchange takes all of two minutes.

In the improv world some performers do anything for a laugh, even if it diminishes the quality of the overall show. Thinking about dogs, laughter and recognition led me to two adaptations of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The first scale, conveyed in the table below, rank orders the quality of the energy produced by the various types of audience reactions.

Ranking Laughter & Applause

Audience Reaction

Source Effect


Cheap Laugh One improviser made fun of another or denied the reality of the scene. Depletes energy of the players
Audience doesn’t care about the characters or gets confused
Beginner improvisers don’t distinguish this kind of laugh from any other. Since they love making people laugh, they are like Pavlov’s dogs. They repeat the behavior until they elicit the reaction again.
Scattered & Tittering Laughter A few audience members recognized themselves or someone they know in something an improviser did or said. Neutral effect – It doesn’t take away energy but it doesn’t build it either. Improvisers who follow this laughter may wind up creating an esoteric show. Some people love it, but others walk away bored.
Deep & Lasting Laughs Audience empathized with the improviser’s character. They saw the humor in the situation. Creates energy in the audience and for the improvisers. The first time this happens in a set, experienced improvisers take note. They use the concept as a theme or create a pattern with it.
Laughter combined with Applause Everyone in the audience recognizes a truth about themselves or someone they know. The players can’t help but notice the audience appreciation. It creates energy on stage and a kind of love in the audience. The players need to keep mining themselves for truth and emotion. The audience may wind up quoting the line or at least sharing the moment with friends.
Standing Ovation The theme of the show is profound. And the performance is artful. The players realize they have created art. The audience recognizes that they have witnessed something great that will never take place again. This is improv’s hole-in-one. It’s the same as Taylor getting a bacon-wrapped steak bone that still has plenty of meat on it.

The table portrays three key components for each level:

  • The characterization of the laugh
  • Why people laughed
  • The type of energy created by it
  • We can look at employee recognition in a similar way by:

We can look at employee recognition in a similar way by:

  • Characterizing the type of recognition
  • Understanding the motivation for giving it
  • Anticipating its effect on the energy of the workplace

Recognition HierarchyLaugh Hierarchy

The main difference between the two hierarchies is that laughter and applause happen spontaneously in an improv show. Leaders have the luxury of thinking through the recognition they give.

Undeserved Praise

Starting at the bottom of the picture is the lowliest form of recognition. It’s so low that it’s not really recognition. It’s out-right manipulation or the recipients are merely bit players in a drama that doesn’t involve them.

The manipulation scenario is obvious. You need someone to do a thankless task, so you butter her up with exxagerated accolades. This can happen either publicly or privately.

The bit player scenario is more public.  Maybe a leader has recently heard feedback that she never compliments or gives credit to anyone. Independent of the scale of an accomplishment, the leader recognizes an individual or team where other employees and, more importantly, her manager see her do it.

This kind of recognition depletes energy. Even if it comes with money or some benefit, the recipient will still feel either used or manipulated. True they may enjoy the treat, but it won’t translate into extra work effort–especially from co-workers who accomplished at least as much but weren’t praised.

Cursory Thank You

The next level up isn’t too different. In both cases, the recognition has more to do with the giver than the receiver. Someone who gives a quick, meaningless thanks feels like he’s shown appreciation and he didn’t even have to spend time thinking about it. Thoughtless recognition follows Newton’s law of conservation of energy. None is put out, so none is created. That is, if you don’t count getting a reputation as a “glib suit” or worse as a form of negative energy.

Sincere Praise & Thanks

At this level, there begins to be some payoff. You have put some thought into how, when and where you’re going to recognize your employee.

A good leader makes this happen often—during appraisals, annual raises and one-on-one or team meetings on any topic. While the praise doesn’t need to be overly detailed, it should be specific, showing that you are  aware of the contribution made and the effort expended.

I know from personal experience how much energy this can create. After working for an organization only a few months, I received an increase during the annual raise period.  The increase was barely noticeable, but the positive message was loud and clear.

My excitement and energy lasted until I got my next raise, which was almost three times the first year’s. But since it was less than average percentage and I had been led to believe my contributions were way above the norm, it was my most demotivating raise ever!

Public Recognition

When the right person is publically recognized for significant contributions, good will and positive energy abound. When you make this an opportunity for storytelling, you add to company lore and strengthen your culture.

For IBM Americas Software Sales I created a deliverable called Inside Us, which featured a respected employee each month. While the write-up mentioned work accomplishments, it focused on what motivated and energized such a high-achieving contributor. Not only did the featured people enjoy the interview process, when the publication was distributed, they received congratulatory notes from  colleagues throughout the organization.

Besides enjoying it, everyone learned what the leadership team expected from them and what they considered exemplary contributions.

Higher Purpose

The most sustainable and enduring recognition isn’t something that’s given once in a while. It’s embodied in the culture and environment when the work itself is significant and important enough to be its own reward. As a leader, your role is to remind the team on a regular basis with stories and celebrations.

The other day my husband test-drove a Tesla and I had the opportunity to talk to the woman who brought the car to us and answered every question we had. She often works 70-hour weeks, but she is completely committed to her job and the company because it is making such an impact. Clearly working for such a company was her reward.

Of course not every organization is changing the world in such an obvious way. Often you need to help your team see the higher purpose and greater good that they do.

It can also work for individuals. Find out what is important to the person you want to recognize and design a project that encompasses that. For the individual, the result is both personal and professional growth. For others who see that, there’s the motivation to work for that same kind of reward.

And So…

Recognition encompasses so much more than the task or accomplishment it’s lauding. At it’s worst, it can be disappointing and demotivating. But done well, it is a gift of renewed energy and commitment to both the individuals being recognized and those around them.

Of course I hope that this hierarchy of recognition will someday earn the same recognition as Maslow’s famous triangle (or at least a few likes, comments, reblogs and tweets). Until then, I’m fine because I see a higher purpose through my blogging.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s