Workplace communication: The hidden power of praise

A few years ago we worked around the world with multiple teams in the same business division, and one team in Asia was different than the rest. We noticed it immediately. There was ease, and a level of authenticity and trust that stood head and shoulders above the rest. This team’s problem-solving was swift and penetrating, and their laughter was spontaneous and generous.

When we asked what they were doing to create this ethos, they didn’t have an answer right off the bat. Then, someone piped up and said, “I think it all started with the Golden Object.”

(They didn’t really say Object, but since I’m not at liberty to share precisely what they did say, let’s try this: substitute ‘Object’ with an artifact or mascot that has meaning for your team. This might be an athletic shoe, a sticky note, a semiconductor… you get the picture.)

Make your Golden Object your own. Seriously.

The Golden Object

With a little urging, they told us the story. Several years ago, someone on the team – we’ll call him Henry – did something above-and-beyond crazy-amazing that really helped the team be successful. Afterwards, a team member emailed Henry and cc:’d everyone else. The subject line: “I nominate Henry for the Golden Object Award.”

The email described what Henry had done, why his team member thought it was extraordinary, and how what Henry did contributed to the team’s success. And here’s the clincher: the team member had purchased a true Golden Object – a battered, gold-painted, symbolic company item – from the employee store. She attached a picture of it to the email, then FedEx’d the real thing to Henry to display on his desk. (The team sat across different offices and countries.)

Over the next days and weeks, team members sent a flurry of nominations, always cc:ing the entire team. At the end of the month, Henry chose a winner. He announced it with a congratulatory email recapping the winner’s story – and, of course, cc:’d the entire team. Then, he walked the Golden Object over to the winner’s desk.

This became a regular ritual: Nominations flew throughout the month, a new Golden Object winner was announced by the incumbent, and then the hero walked, drove or shipped the Golden Object to the winner’s desk to display for a month.

Secret of the universe #37: Cultivate positive regard

Why does this make such a difference?

People want to be seen. They want to feel valued. They want to know their actions make a difference. A recent piece of research by Nancy Wallis in Leadership Quarterly shows they also want to follow leaders who build their self-esteem, not put it at risk or tear it down. For this high-performing team, the monthly Golden Object award was a playful way to be on the lookout for how people contribute, then heap meaningful praise on them in full view of their peers.

What strikes me is how the team themselves attributed their visibly powerful culture to this ongoing ritual of authentic appreciation. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey of Harvard University call this “creating an environment of positive regard.”

You can’t send people to Mars without it

The view out your office window.

In their earlier book called How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Kegan and Lahey describe a challenge they often pose to groups. It goes roughly like this:

Exciting news! You’ve been selected for a trip to Mars to establish a brand new company. The investors have high hopes for this company, and will provide every resource needed. As the founding group, YOU have an incredible opportunity to create the culture that will make this venture successful. And in this new company you’ll be starting fresh. You’ll bring the benefit of all your respective experience working in organizations, but any history you have together will evaporate; it will be as if you are coming together for the very first time.

With that in mind, you get to determine the starting point for the culture. The group will begin with a single agreement about how they’ll interact together. What should it be? In your view, what’s the single most important agreement for co-workers to make to create a successful and effective culture?

Great question, and it’s worth taking a few moments with.

The good stuff enables the tough stuff

After some discussion every group, across all industries and hierarchies and continents, identifies the exact same agreement – every single group. What is it? The “bring-it-to-me-first” agreement. If I do something that concerns, puzzles or triggers you, you won’t complain to someone else or let it fester and snowball, you’ll bring it to me directly so we can figure it out together.

Kegan and Lahey have lots of interesting things to say about this. (Including: the most important thing for the group to work out next is their expectation for when a colleague breaks the agreement and goes to a third party to complain about them. And this will happen. Not because the colleague is a bad person, but because even under the best circumstances, a “bring-it-to-me-first” conversation is difficult. It takes self-awareness and courage and a fair amount of energy. And we’re all human.)

But here’s the thing I want you to hear right now: Kegan and Lahey’s research tells them that success with this agreement – which everyone wants, and believes would make their team stronger – is only possible within an environment of mutual positive regard. Period.

Spreading the greats around

I learned about giving good appreciative feedback by doing a terrible job of it.

In my first year leading project teams as a market research consultant, I heard something in my performance review that sucked the air right out of me. I’d gone in with my self-evaluation, excited to talk about accomplishments and even thinking raise.

Instead, I got this 360 feedback from the Data Collection folks: “insincere,” “trying hard, but doesn’t seem genuine,” and “doesn’t seem to care about quality work.”

I was speechless. For a sliver of a second, I thought about quitting.

But that afternoon, I gathered my moxy and went down to Data Collection. I knocked on the office door of the Director. (She was a battleaxe and frankly scared the hell out of me.) I told her what I’d heard, and asked if she could help me understand it. She looked me straight in the eye and said – I’ll never forget this moment – “I can tell you about the feedback, because some of it came from me.”

With my heart in my throat, I listened. She said that she and the group called me the “great!” girl. Everything was great. The call script was great, the timeline they gave me was great, their response rate was great, they were great. They didn’t buy it – or me – for a second.

It wasn’t that I was consciously faking it. But I was so eager to create positive relationships and communicate I valued them that I spread great around like peanut butter.

You know what else? For me, at that time, those greats were a protective shield. Spreading great kept me from actually having to slow down, see the person on the other side, and create an opening for a two-way exchange. Theidea of dropping down into a real and present exchange made me anxious: What if I genuinely couldn’t find something positive to say about what they were doing? What if they weren’t so great –  how would I tell them without hurting the relationship? What if because we had two-way communication, I heard something I didn’t want to, or didn’t know what to do with?

Great strategy.

Simple recipe with a surprise twist

There are lots of recipes for giving appreciative feedback – you can just google it – but here’s my favorite, from Kegan and Lahey’s work:

  • Describe what the person did. “Lisa, yesterday morning, I saw you drop everything to pull the team together and facilitate an emergency meeting to respond to our client’s concern about the schematics.”
  • Describe the impact it had on the team, the project, the company, or you. “That made me feel confident the issue would be handled quickly and professionally, which let me take it off my plate and work on our strategic plan.”
  • SURPRISINGLY POWERFUL TWIST: Give appreciative feedback publicly, but address it directly to the person. “Team, I want to take a few minutes here at the start of our staff meeting to appreciate something that helped us be successful this week. Lisa, yesterday morning, I saw you…”

So how can you engage your team in appreciating each other? Try making sure you’re doing it yourself. Try a Golden Object. Start staff meetings with 7 minutes of appreciation. Read this story, about how one group found their Everyday Superheroes.

Or read and comment below: What other ways to cultivate positive regard have you seen, experienced or imagined?


Images thanks to PF Second Darkness, Geekosystem and Azzrian Visions.

One thought on “Workplace communication: The hidden power of praise

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