When did you last thank a member of your team? Yesterday? Last week? Can’t remember? For some of us, it comes easily. For others, it’s much more challenging.
But one thing’s true. Praise and celebration make a massive difference to staff engagement. Yet they’re often overlooked or forgotten in the everyday busy-ness of work.
Why is this? It’s such a simple thing to do. Maybe it’s cultural. In some places, it’s like praise and celebration have been engineered out of the fabric of the workplace. Or could it be down to our education system, focusing more on weaknesses than strengths? According to Gallup, two-thirds of staff can’t recall recent praise or recognition. What a sad state of affairs!
If you’re anything like me, you’ll find praise and celebration hard. They just don’t come naturally. Looking through the lens of CliftonStrengths® (my preferred personality profiling tool), one of my top five strengths is ‘Achiever’. No surprise there. I’ve always driven myself hard and thrive on goals. But the ‘basement’ of this strength is forgetting to praise, say thank you or celebrate success. It just doesn’t occur to me.
So, if it doesn’t come easily, what are you to do? How do you create a culture of praise and celebration in your business?
Here’s the thing. You can’t praise or celebrate until you know what it is that you’re singling out. If someone says to me, ‘Well done Dom. Good job’ it’s pretty meaningless. The value in feedback (whether positive or negative) is its specificity. So better to say, ‘Well done Dom for doing x thing which enabled y thing to happen’.
So you need to get specific. What are the milestones you want to celebrate? What are the behaviours you want to call out? I’ve written before about clarity of expectation. This is critical. A good handle on KPIs and goals will give you the milestones for celebration. And a behavioural framework, based on your corporate values, will define the behaviours you want to call out and praise. Without these, it’s hard to make any headway with motivation.
Once you’re clear on goals and behaviours, recognise that positive reinforcement is the way forward. If you’ve had any experience of small children, or dogs for that matter, you’ll know that praise and reward are the way to get them to do more of what you want. It’s so much easier to train a dog with titbits or make a big deal out of children sharing or being polite. They will learn to behave in a certain way to get what they want too.
It may sound simplistic, but it’s the same in businesses. Work out where your social currency or status comes from and use it as an incentive. Then everything becomes self-fulfilling. And if you don’t do it? Well, I worked for a guy once who never said anything nice to anyone in my presence. I knew he had children, and I often wondered what kind of parent he was. If his 3-year-old gave him a painting, did he say, ‘That’s sh*t – try harder’! As a result, his organisation was in a permanent state of ‘learned helplessness’. The pervasive negativity resulted in people losing their sense of self-worth and self-esteem. No-one cared about doing a good job, and there was little collaboration. People just existed. Terrible! I didn’t stay there long.
If you know you’re not great at praising people or planning celebrations, ask for help. There will be others around you who are naturals at this. Get them to keep their ears to the ground to spot when someone’s been helpful, solved an issue or gone above and beyond. Armed with this information, make a deliberate point of giving praise every single day.
This can be transformational. It’s compelling when you notice more subtle things like someone’s diligence in finishing a project on time – the unremarkable stuff of everyday working life. It’s easy to catch the big, dramatic moments, like someone working through the night to fix a problem, but you also need to notice when people are quietly doing their job well.
And another great tip? Give your team control of the success budget. Then they can look forward to the big celebrations that they’ve helped to plan.
Successful cultures see mistakes or failures as opportunities to learn. Even trying and failing should be a cause for celebration. This is important to psychological safety in the workplace. Here’s a great example—Microsoft’s disastrous launch of a chatbot on Twitter. Before 24 hours were out, people corrupted it by tweeting all sorts of misogynistic, racist and Donald Trumpist remarks. Instead of coming down hard on the team, Microsoft congratulated them on getting it out so quickly. And acknowledged that it didn’t work out the way they’d planned but the team had learned something from it.
We turned mistakes into a celebration in themselves when I was MD of Peer 1. Our ‘Cock-Up of the Month’ award was legendary. We’d encourage team members to share embarrassing moments – both working and personal. This instantly built rapport and was an excellent sign when people felt able to share. We used phrases like ‘There’s no failure, only learning’. We aimed to make sure people ‘fessed up quickly if something had gone wrong and weren’t worried about any feeling of blame.
Sometimes I feel like a stuck record, but I really can’t emphasise enough the importance of rhythm. And this goes for praise and celebration too. You want your staff to come together often to celebrate – it’s a syncing up activity. Without celebrations, there’s no collective sense of achievement. If your team have worked hard, it needs to be recognised and rewarded.
Praise and celebration can become a daily habit. Horst Shultz, the founder of the world-leading Ritz Carlton hotel group, had a great example when I interviewed him for my Melting Pot podcast. Every day, his teams would come together in a daily huddle and read out one of their 24 service mantras. And then a person would be singled out for praise having embodied this during the previous week. Many of my clients use Friday Pulse – a great measure of employee engagement. As well as saying how happy they are on a Friday, teams dole out praise and thanks every Monday. A great way to start the week!
There’s a sports analogy here. When teams from different areas play each other, it gives them external validation of where they sit relative to others. And this alone can be a cause for a grand celebration. In the same way, I’m a big fan of awards because they give a third party perspective to success. You may think you’re doing a great job internally, but how do you measure up on the broader market? Awards will show you how much more work you need to do to be the best.
In the past, some of the best celebrations have been at events like the Sunday Times Best Places to Work or the Management Today Service Excellence Awards. Putting on black tie, going to a swish hotel and caring about the result. Sure, I’ve been to some in the past that were a waste of time. Industry awards mainly. Waste of time. But when it’s best companies or places to work, it’s been exhilarating. Just seeing a team that has worked so hard win such kudos is a massive boost. It increases confidence like nothing else and keeps the flywheel of your culture spinning.
But what if one of your teams isn’t winning? Even worse, it keeps failing. Maybe you’re setting the bar too high. If teams are missing their number over and over again, you need to re-evaluate. Lower the target to something that you know is achievable and once they hit that, celebrate. Then increase it incrementally.
This will build confidence, and they’ll start to climb out of the hole. I’ve seen this many times, particularly in sales teams. Something changed in the market place or someone leaves. Everyone’s depressed. You need to reset and rebuild. I’ve also seen it at the whole company level. When I took over as Managing Director of IT Lab, we were losing shed-loads of money. We only had three months to live. But we re-set and re-focused on getting the company to break even. And then moved on to growth. There’s nothing like survival to galvanise a company.
Dominic has spent 14 years working in sales, marketing and business management within the IT sector. He has held executive positions at Peer 1 Hosting, IT Lab and Rackspace. At Peer 1 he built the UK business to £30m run rate in 5 years. He won many awards for creating a great place to work. At Rackspace Dominic built the UK company from four to 150 staff, and increased annual revenues from £595,000 to £25 million in just four years. Under his management, Rackspace was recognised as one of the most outstanding workplaces in Europe, and won several service awards for its Fanatical Support TM. Dominic has a BSc in Agricultural and Food Marketing from Newcastle and a MBA from Sheffield Business School. Dominic is also a regular public speaker on creating great places to work and achieving continuous client satisfaction and an assessor on the Sunday Times Customer Experience Awards.