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  • Writer's pictureLeCarie Whitfield

Why Your Employees Crave Public Recognition (even introverts)

Here’s a story (hypothetical, of course) about Dick, the manager of a call center, and Jane, one of his direct reports. Around four o’clock on a Wednesday in mid-October, Dick informs Jane that he needs to see her before she leaves for the day. Jane spends the next hour wondering what the meeting could be about—her performance review is 6 months away and the last one was somewhat positive, but the company is downsizing, so maybe today is her unlucky day. Jane is so preoccupied that she is indiscriminately curt with both callers and colleagues. When a customer says, “It sounds like you’re having an awful day,” Jane snaps out of her funk. Finally, at 5:05 Jane peeks into Dick’s office and he waves her to have a seat. Dick hands Jane an envelope and with a smile (or maybe a snarl) says, “Here you go.” Nervously, Jane opens the envelope and reads quietly, her lips moving: “Dear Jane. You hit a company record last quarter! Thanks so much for all you do. I’m told that you recently bought a home and spend weekends repairing it. I hope this gift will be put to good use. Signed, CEO.” Inside the envelope is a gift card for $1,000. Jane is shocked and confused – she fretted about losing her job and instead received an award. She gives a forced smile, says an inaudible ‘thank you,’ and stumbles as she leaves the office.

Dick is pleased with himself. Before deciding how to give this award to Jane, he read a few employee recognition blogs to help formulate a plan. He personalized the reward, coupled it with acknowledgment from the CEO, and did not put his most introverted employee in the spotlight. He even created a surprise opportunity to give this award for Jane, and, well, everyone loves a surprise, right? Pleased with his performance, Dick rocked back in his chair, folded his hands behind his head, and said, “Nailed it.”

But did he?

While Dick may have had the elements of an effective award in mind, his presentation was an utter failure. Here is why.

For starters, not everyone loves a surprise at work. (Count me among that group.) While it is true that surprises can stimulate pleasure centers in our brains, the research study proving this involved administering squirts of fruit juice and water to test subjects via plastic tubes in an unpredictable sequence. In that experiment, subjects receiving a shot of juice every 20 seconds had lower dopamine spikes than those who were randomly delivered the tasty sweet treat.

At work, however, surprises are not necessarily a good thing. Most employees prefer a modicum of predictability in their day. A surprise at work usually means working overtime to fix a problem that no one expected or, in Jane’s case, being summoned to the supervisor’s office at the end of the workday. Instead of feeling giddy with anticipation, Jane felt like she had been summoned to the principal’s office in grade school. Jane’s reaction, under the circumstances, was not surprising.

For many employees, a surprise at work is destabilizing rather than delightful. Nevertheless, if you are the type of supervisor who insists on surprising employees with good news (or, heaven forbid, bad news), then you must know your audience. Introverts, analytical types, logician personalities, and people who like to feel in control of their surroundings tend to be more surprise-averse than extroverts. While all personality types appreciate the sentiment behind the surprise, you simply will not get the same excited emotional reaction from an introvert as an extrovert. Believe it or not, some people feel assaulted by surprises, and Jane may be one of them. Therefore, when Dick handed her an unexpected award, it was a bit of an ambushing.

The next flaw in Dick’s presentation was that it demonstrated a lack of recognition for Jane’s achievement. Introverts are often highly influential and their achievements deserve just recognition. Quietly giving a gift card to Jane with no fanfare signaled to Jane, at both the conscious and unconscious levels, that she is doing significantly more than required, that the company has relatively low expectations for performance, and that she must keep the award to herself since it was presented in secrecy. Jane is not going to brag to her coworkers about the gift card she received (that would be crass), so it is unlikely that others will find out that she broke a record. Jane may not even seek out to achieve another record because the secret award sends an inadvertent signal that the company viewed her result as “outlier behavior” barely worthy of notice and not important enough to rally the troops to new heights. If Dick was hoping to improve employee performance, sadly, he may get the exact opposite. Jane’s gift card may result in a small boost in her work until she spends it out, but it is not likely to improve long-term performance of Jane or any other employees. For max impact, give employees their awards visibly and inclusively.

Notably, a study by the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) has concluded that some form of public recognition is both necessary and important to all reward earners. The IRF identified four types of award presentations and evaluated them from most effective to least effective, across several demographics. The four types are big show, little show, peer-to-peer, and private. While every award does not need to be given in front of the entire company (the “big show”), the least impactful presentation method is a private, personal note with absolutely no fanfare.

The IRF study showed that the “Little Show” was the most appreciated ceremony (86 percent), followed by peer-to-peer (79 percent) and the big show (77 percent), with private ceremony (70 percent) bringing up the rear. No matter how the data was analyzed (whether by age or by gender), the private presentation ranked last in terms of effectiveness. What we can learn from the IRF study is that when it comes to recognition for achievement, having some type of public ceremony is important, even to introverts.

Being an introvert doesn’t mean you shy away from recognition. Public celebration makes us feel special. Whatever brief discomfort a recipient may experience while standing among peers quickly fades; the memory that remains will be the sound of applause, the feeling of receiving an award, and the words spoken about our efforts. While it may not be cost effective for your entire company to gather monthly, quarterly, or annually for a “big show” event, you can still create an awards ceremony event to make honorees feel special. A “little show” event (work group or branch office ceremony attended by the CEO) or a “peer-to-peer” event (coworkers presenting awards to one another) are very effective for giving and gaining kudos with your workers.

Presentations for work achievements also work for introverts because people love hearing their own name. Science has proven that hearing one’s own name in a positive environment stimulates dopamine production in the brain, much like receiving a surprising shot of sweet fruit juice. Hearing one’s name announced at an award presentation means someone wants your attention or wants to focus attention on you in a positive light. Public acknowledgement for exceptional work (or even very good work) is motivating for both the recipient and for others in the room. The recipient is motivated because employees are sometimes unsure about their own ability and performance in comparison to others (unless you have a leader board tracking performance). Similarly, employees are unsure how their contributions tie into achieving the institution’s goals. Publicly receiving an award shows the recipient that performance and behaviors resulting in the award align with the company’s beliefs and expectations.

At a public ceremony, Jane and her colleagues would have learned that what Jane did—breaking a company record--was considered difficult (and therefore that Jane is talented), that the company is appreciative of or cares about performance, and that Jane’s feat is worth repeating and emulating.

Working in a company means you are part of a team. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, when the people you work with know that you have achieved an important goal, they too are motivated to improve as well. Hopefully, the purpose of your employee recognition program is to engender loyalty and increase engagement, and the lesson to learn from Dick’s mistake is this: how you present matters just as much as what you give. It is the show, more than the award itself, that inspires others and makes the difference between a cherished award or something an employee forgets.


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