Robots don't need our praise

The day Apple introduced Siri, the iPhone-based personal assistant who responds to your voice, I was having lunch in San Francisco with some clients and we were all playing around seeing what Siri could do.

 “Siri, what is the weather like outside?”

 “It’s cloudy.”

“Thank you, Siri,” the CEO said.

“You’re welcome,” said Siri. Then we all burst out laughing.

“Dude, why are you thanking a robot?” joked the SVP. The CEO looked sheepish. 

 It’s true, robots do not need to be thanked. But our employees and coworkers do.

To stay motivated, human beings need to have someone notice and appreciate their efforts, even if they are not currently wowing us with their output. For some people, this may seem obvious. But it’s not obvious to everyone.

 Here are some common attitudes that get in the way of verbally acknowledging our employees.

 Complaint #1: It’s not my job to tell them

  • They get a paycheck, don’t they? That should be enough.
  • They should take pride in their work and do a good job because it’s the right thing to do.
  • If they want to hear they are doing a good job, they should actually DO a good job.

What these attitudes have in common is, a leader abdicating their responsibility to motivate his or her team.

Motivation is like dessert. Preferences are personal. If you are out at a restaurant with a group of people, you wouldn’t order red velvet cake and insist everyone eat it just because you like it. You’d let the cake eaters eat cake, and the pie people eat pie, and so on. 

So it goes with motivation: you can’t tell people what ought to motivate them, because people want what they want. Some people really are motivated by the regular paycheck. Other people – most people, in fact – want to feel like they are good at what they do, or that the way they do their job matters to someone. It doesn't mean they don’t want all the other rewards that come with the job; try taking away the paycheck and see how long people stick around. But for many the paycheck is just the vegetables - the nutrition that keeps you alive. Not dessert.

Many people who find themselves in leadership positions like to credit their success to their own strong personal work ethic. For these people, working in a certain way is an inherent good, and a matter of morality. However an organization is not a church: everyone doesn’t have to believe and think the same way in order to get the job done. (In fact having everyone in an organization think the same way often obstructs good decision-making, but that is a post for another day.)

If you want to motivate your employees, you need to figure out what’s dessert for each of them. Then give them that.

Complaint #2: Politically, I can’t tell them

  • They will stop putting in effort and slack off.
  • They will get a big head and start expecting a raise or a bonus.
  • They will start comparing their effort and returns to others’, and that will be trouble.

You can’t control people, even as a manager. However, you can influence what they do.

A lot of managers – especially those with a strong internal work ethic – are very concerned about slackers. Slackers offend their sense of morality, and therefore they expend a lot of effort on the managing lowest performers, trying to bribe or browbeat them into better performance.

This misses the mark.  Research shows that units with the highest output are those where the manager spends most of their energy managing the highest performers rather than the lowest ones. Obviously that doesn’t mean browbeating or bribing – that means noticing and praising, as well as asking high performers what they need and how the manager can help them.

So even though the managers have a lot of power to impact performance, they are not the only factor affecting employees motivation. Many companies have elaborate sets of metrics on which individual bonuses and promotions are based – aka pay-for-performance. Many times, managers do not have much control over how performance gets rated– their managers ask them to fill a quota, or there are benchmarking procedures that cannot be changed.

Many times, these performance metrics do not reflect discretionary activities that build office relationships or contribute to company culture – if the goal wasn’t on your personal development plan, you don’t get credit. In those cases, good performance goes unrewarded, and bonuses are handed to those who only look out for number one. And that's demotivating.

 A great interpersonal style will not make up for a crappy performance metric system. However what a manager can do is acknowledge when employees put in extra effort, and be transparent about the fact that it may not turn into a bonus, even though it is noticed and appreciated.

Luckily, research shows us that workers are often more motivated by a feeling that their work makes a difference to others, than they are by material rewards.

Complaint #3: Praise doesn’t work

  • When I praise my people they don’t seem to like it - they get flustered and tell me it’s nothing.
  • When I say good job they don’t seem to take it seriously.

 Praise carries a lot of baggage, and you can’t tell what messages people have received about praise in the past just by looking at them.

Some people have gotten the message that accepting compliments makes them prideful, or they don’t want to be seen as conceited. Other people might get flustered because they see their work as a communal effort, and not want to be singled out for praise when others contributed just as much.

Also – think about the quality of praise you are giving. At one company I work with, I heard a story about a manager who sets his phone alarm for 2 PM every day so that he will remember to go around and hand out “attaboys” and “good jobs”. Do you think his employees didn’t figure it out? Do you think the 2 PM motivation moment carried much weight for them?

If you want your praise to be meaningful and motivating, you can’t be a robot, chirping “good job” anytime anyone finishes something. Instead, why not dig deeper? Get curious about what it took to get there. As seen in research on goal achievement, it’s far more effective for an employee’s development to acknowledge the effort, rather than the result. When you want to catch someone doing something right, look for specifics. When you find those, highlighting them is a sure way to help the employee repeat that performance.

 Since you can’t (yet!) surround yourself only with robots, make a point to try out a few ways to notice and thank the people around you. Vary it according to what’s important to the employee, not what’s important to you. Make it feel genuine, like you are interested in their process, and make your praise specific enough that they can repeat the same "good job" next time.