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Recognition Programs Require Better Bricks – Not Better Structures



paul hebert[Recognition Programs Require Better Bricks – Not Better Structures – From Paul Hebert-VP Solution Design. Read more about him on our Leadership page.]

I’ve posted in the past on the idea of “negative reciprocity” whereby if you’re treated unfairly by someone you will typically find a way to “repay” that unfairness by being unfair in your response.  I positioned that in the vein of organizations asking for employee sacrifices during the downturn of the past few years and then not necessarily paying them back for that sacrifice creating a potential backlash against those companies once the economy turns around.  I’m sticking to my story – I still think there will be that snap back and many companies will be caught off guard.

But there is also this little tidbit I found on the Scientific American site a while back… “Bad Behavior Gets “Paid Forward” Even More Than Good.”

Just based on the headline we can surely understand what’s coming – that people treated poorly will treat others poorly more often than they treat someone well if they are treated well.

Well – it’s actually a little more complicated than that.

We’re All Pretty Petty

An experiment was conducted that ran as follows:

I tell you I gave someone $6 and told them they could give as little or as much as they wanted to you and keep the rest for themselves.  I then give you the envelope that contains your “cut.”  You open the envelope and there’s nothing in it.  You were stiffed.  Now I give you another envelope with $6 in it and give you the same choice – keep what you want – pass on what you want to someone else.  What do you do?  Before you answer consider this… Just for grins think of this same set-up whereby you got $3 or even the full $6?  What would you do in those situations when I give you the next envelope with $6 in it to pay forward some portion?

Would you pay forward the greed if you get stiffed?  Would you pay forward the fairness of a $3 split and if given the full $6 would you pay forward that generosity by passing on the full $6?

They ran this experiment a bunch of times with 100s of people and the results are a bit surprising…

  • Those that received $3 (received “fairness) passed on $3.
  • Those that received $0 (received “greed) passed on a little over $1 – they passed on the greed.
  • Those that received $6 (received “generosity) passed on … wait for it… $3.

Wait, what?  We got $6 of found money and we only passed on $3?  We are greedy little things aren’t we?

But here’s the weird thing in all of this giving – it would make sense to “retaliate” if you were giving back to the person you received from – but in this experiment you’re not.  You’re giving to someone completely different – not connected to the initial give.  Therefore, in two of the conditions you’re punishing someone else for your mistreatment and your own greed.

As the author says in the article:

“Our results reveal that people pay greed forward as a means of dealing with the negative emotions that being treated badly engender: if I can’t pay you back for being a jerk, my only option for feeling better is to be a jerk to someone else.”

Read that again. In order to feel better about being treated badly – I’m going to treat someone else badly.  Sounds a bit like kicking the cat because the boss is a jerk.

Warning – Business Application

Now think of this in terms of your organization.

How often to you ask for favors?  How often does your job outcome rely on someone else doing a great job and vice versa – how often does what you do dictate whether someone else can produce above average results.  Organizations are one big factory of give/get/reciprocity/fairness/greed.

Organizations REQUIRE sharing and managing resources.

It would seem that if left to our own devices – over time the sum total of “paying forward” good stuff would regress to mediocrity and everyone would end up giving less than received and ultimately creating a really poor environment for engagement.

Remember – even when faced with generosity we don’t pay forward the same amount so over time that generosity fades and the entire thing just flattens out.

What can you do to keep your organization on an upswing?

How To Offset Inherent Greed

One of the things the psychologists in this article suggest is that if people believe they are part of a “group” with similar goals and objectives, similar rules and constraints – they are less likely to act in such blatant self-interest and more likely to help each other.

In other words – if we think we are part of a single culture – a single tribe – then generosity can spread through the network – the organization.

Creating that “brand” affiliation is a function of the language your company uses, the symbols that represent who you are as a group, the stories you tell about your company and most importantly – the way in which you reward and recognize EVERYONE in the company against cultural touchstones that define who you are.

I know a lot of companies will say they have recognition programs in place that reinforce their culture and the values of the organization.  We agree they are important.  Those are the “structures” we build to help us communicate and manage the information we create when we “do recognition” within a company.

But we at Symbolist believe the question isn’t “do you have a program?” but first and foremost do you have:

  • Symbols?
  • Common language?
  • Specific touchstones?
  • Stories?
  • Communication infrastructure for all of the above?

Those are the important elements of your reward strategy – much more so than the toaster, the clock, the watch or the coffee mug with a logo or even the pretty social recognition wall.

Get to the core of building your tribe by crafting the building blocks before you start building the structure.  

How strong the bricks are determine how strong the structure will be.

One Response to “Recognition Programs Require Better Bricks – Not Better Structures”

  1. Symbolist says:

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