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I hardly recognize you

The annual engineering awards are being given out this week at the Microsoft Engineering Forum. Annual reviews will soon follow. These are great opportunities to recognize impactful work. It’s too bad most managers are tragically ignorant of how to recognize their employees or truly why they should.

If you are a manager, you’re probably relishing this opportunity to heckle all those bad managers. Guess what? I’m talking about you. You don’t know how to use recognition properly. You don’t know why you should. “But I’m great at recognizing my employees,” cries a clueless manager. “I’m always congratulating my team—I even shaved my head once.” Let’s call this manager, “Chaos.”

Chaos thinks recognition is all about morale and motivation. Certainly, there are real benefits for Chaos being a team cheerleader. But if that’s the depth of his use of recognition, then chaos is what he’ll get.

Everybody wants results

What Chaos fails to recognize is that recognition is a form of reinforcement. Reinforcement drives behavior. Behavior drives results. Results are king at Microsoft. Good recognition focuses on reinforcing desired results (and correcting undesirable ones).

If you aren’t thoughtful about the results you seek, recognition can easily drive detrimental behavior. For example, Chaos shaved his head when his team met a tough milestone. To meet that milestone, team members cut corners on quality and deferred fixing structural issues. Those issues increased the “bug debt,” prolonged stabilization, and reduced release quality. More importantly, Chaos’ team members learned that Chaos rewards cutting corners and doesn’t respect quality.

Eric Aside

Cutting corners for rapid development is desirable for prototypes and new ideas, where learning about the problem space is the result you seek.

The end may justify the means

“Yeah, but we hit the milestone. We built team unity. That means something!” claims Chaos. Do the ends justify the means? No, not with your narrow view of the ends.

The ends for Chaos were a united team hitting a tough date. However, others ends were achieved—increased bug debt. If the ends had been defined as a united team hitting a tough date with zero bug debt, then the means can be left to the team.

Chaos is getting cynical. He says, “So if the team robbed a bank to get money to pay a vendor to reduce bug debt then that would be okay?” No, it wouldn’t. Chaos has introduced another end—jail time. Define the ends as a united team legally and responsibly hitting a tough date with zero bug debt, and that problem is avoided.

It’s not easy to carefully define and communicate the ends you seek. It’s much simpler to follow Chaos and reward haphazard results, ignoring the unintended consequences. However, setting clear expectations and recognizing your truly desired results pays huge dividends:

§  You micromanage less.

§  Your team innovates more.

§  You get the results you desire.

§  You have more time to focus on developing and recognizing the great work of your team.

The time has come to act and act quickly

Do you wait till the ends are achieved before recognizing them? Recognition is most effective when given immediately after achieving a goal. But you also want to recognize all the intermediate results that led to the end result.

For example, on the way to your united team legally and responsibly hitting a tough date with zero bug debt, your lead ran a great design review. You should immediately recognize her effort saying, “That was a terrific design review today. I love how you listened to everyone’s opinion without critique. I also liked how you summarized that feedback and improved the design. Correcting those errors and misunderstandings early will save us significant time and lead us toward hitting our date with zero bug debt.”

Notice the keys to great recognition:

§  It’s immediate—the same day, or even better, the same minute.

§  It describes precisely what you liked—as opposed to the generic “nice job.”

§  It’s tied to the desired end result—reinforcing the real value of the effort.

You may not have the time or opportunity to recognize every positive step toward your end goal. However, you should keep your eyes open and address as many small victories as you can. Your team will love it, they’ll better appreciate your expectations, and they’ll be better aligned toward your desired result.

Let us celebrate

Chaos wonders, “Day-to-day recognition is great, but doesn’t it detract from the big celebration at the end? Was I wrong to shave my head?” Chaos’ grooming habits aside, a celebration marking a major achievement is just as important as day-to-day recognition. However, because it’s a culmination of a long-term effort it’s not as simple as sharing a few comments or shaving your head.

First and foremost, recognition should be for a carefully defined desired result, not something arbitrary like “great effort” or “someone said something nice.” For example, don’t give out an award for “teamwork.” Give out an award for “teamwork across divisions and geographies that led to delivering a complete customer scenario.”

Once you have clearly defined criteria for the recognition, plan the celebration. Here’s what makes for a lasting positive experience:

§  Make it personal—if you defined the goal, the recognition should come from you. Include some personal remarks that express the spirit behind your goals and the way individuals or the team embodied that spirit.

§  Make it public—public ritual is important. It carries meaning, builds community, spreads the message, and creates a shared sense of purpose.

§  Make it lasting—the associated award should be substantial to the senses—heavy, bold, eye-catching, and tactile. Shaving your head meets many of these criteria, but so do heavy physical awards (like the Oscars) and giant signed banners on heavy poster board.

These guidelines give your celebration enduring emotional impact. Food or money don’t cut it.

I’d like to thank the Academy

The last element to consider is, “Do you give the recognition to the team or to the individual?” While you can certainly give the whole team a celebration and a day off, recognition for carefully defined desired results should be called out to a small number of recipients (typically, no more than five). Any more than that dilutes the impact.

Why is the impact diluted when given to more than five recipients? Because when you recognize a larger group, there are sure to be individuals who didn’t embody the spirit of your goals. The message you send is that tagging along is just as good as being the driver. It isn’t. Who originated the action? Who drove it to fruition? Those are the people at the center and in the lead. Those are the people you recognize and encourage others to emulate.

Eric Aside

I’ve been involved in the internal Engineering Excellence (EE) Award program for some time. It recognizes broad improvement in the way we engineer our products and services. The criteria are around demonstrating that improvement and making it available for others (business and customer impact, plus adoption). The recipients are those individuals who came up with the initial idea, first put it in practice, and drove adoption. The ceremony has ritual (Bill Gates used to host it) and the awards themselves are bold, heavy, eye-catching, tactile, and will last a lifetime.

Over the past several years, the EE Awards have recognized and encouraged dramatic improvements in our engineeringmore secure and reliable products, better customer feedback, and broader language support. Reviewers in specialized areas are noticing the difference. Hopefully, when enough improvements are broadly in place, everyone will notice.

An interesting side note: a few years ago we gave an EE Award to a tool that consolidated a large number of duplicate efforts, gained broad adoption, and automated processes that improved our software. Unfortunately, the tool itself wasn’t well engineered, which hurt productivity and reflected poorly on the award program. A great example of needing to carefully define the ends you seek.

All right, lets review

Now that you know how to recognize your employees and why you should, how can you apply this to the annual review process?

§  Describe what you liked (and disliked) about the results your employees achieved and how they achieved them.

§  Talk about the small results and the big results. Tie them together.

§  Set carefully defined goals for the future that will drive personal development and stronger results for your business and customers.

Clarity around expectations tied to consistent feedback described in plain language is critical to getting great results, and a happy and secure team. Recognition requires careful thinking and deliberate action, but it’s not difficult to do. Avoid the chaos and you can even keep your hair.

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  1. RisingStar RisingStar

    Excellent article. Thanks for posting. How I really wish managers (and non managers) read this and think about it for a few minutes.

  2. ericgu ericgu

    I really like most of your article.

    Where we differ is on the individual vs. group recognition. My experience with a small number of individual awards is that a) they are nearly always political in nature and b) they are *demotivating* to the people who did good work but weren’t chosen, especially if the awards are significant in monetary value or prestige. And you don’t impact those along for the ride – if they aren’t engaged, I don’t see how giving somebody else an award makes them engaged. A well-operating team may help them engage, but if you’re stressing the individual you may have problems getting there.

    What you need to do is tie recognition to business value, which you hint at but don’t explicitly define, and give recognition to the group that achieved the value.

  3. Lots of good stuff this week – not one, not two, but three posts worthy of ‘Pick of the week’ treatment! Picks of the Week I Hardly Recognize You Fighting Technical Debt with the Wall of Pain A Different Shade of Rose, or “How to…actually, I’m not up

  4. MSFTee MSFTee

    What I have seen so far in my experience is that what people like the most is constant, good, critical and honest feedback and a constant stream of it, every 1:1. I for example have several ‘awards’ I do not care for as I know these were given out with the idea ‘how can we boost the team’s morale, and reward individuals who excelled’. I almost find it insulting — "*I* know I did a great job; so when I do my next great job will you give me an award too?", or "hey, if I do not get an award, does it mean I did not do a good enough job?".  In the end it’s personal good feedback that makes a person grow. You want to see the person succeed to get the promo, have a broader impact, and have sense of accomplishment on jobs done well, and don’t forget: get more money in his or her pocket. Awards are given out too inconsistent to be meaningful I have found. From that perspective I’d love to have a more standardized system. Think MMORPG’s type of award systems — imagine a HUD showing your awards and skill levels, so you know where you’re at every time of the day. Crazy? No, we’re already doing it, but not in a transparent way…

  5. I firmly believe that meaningful recognition is easily achieved if managers put the kind of thought into their awards program like they do writing a personal thank you note. But, in order to do that a manager must really show care and support by actually engaging employees on a regular basis in conversation to know what to say in a sincere thank you note. Effective recognition cannot be achieved in the empty vacuum of a handshake and the passing of a certificate each time an employee does a good job.

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