Catch Them Doing It Right

by Steven M. Smith · 2 comments

First published in the Management Chronicles of Better Software Magazine, January – February, 2008 issue. It’s also posted on the stickyminds website.

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A smile formed on Eleanor’s face as she saw me approach her doorway.

She and I were meeting to discuss her views on recognizing and rewarding employees. She had been my manager for three years when I worked as a developer. A skillful manager, her recognition and rewards had brought out the best in me and my teammates.

I am now a manager in the testing organization. Although I recognize and reward the members of my team as best I can, I know that Eleanor’s recognition and rewards are more effective than mine. I knew what she did, but I knew little about the thought process behind her actions.

I wanted to learn about the thoughts that shaped her actions, because I suspected they could help me.

As I entered, Eleanor moved around her desk, extended her hand, and said, “Trevor, it’s great to see you. How is Ginny’s first semester at the U going?”

Typical Eleanor. Although we hadn’t talked in months, she remembered that my daughter Ginny had started at the university two months ago. How did she remember details like that?

“She’s doing well,” I answered, reaching out to shake her hand. “Although I think she may be a little homesick. Thank you for asking.”

“Sit down,” Eleanor said, motioning to a chair that I had sat in many times. She moved to the other side of the small, circular conference table and sat down.

“How can I help?” she asked.

“I want to learn the secrets you use to recognize and reward employees,” I replied.

“Secrets?” Eleanor’s forehead crinkled as she started to laugh. “I don’t have any secrets.”

“Your methods may not seem like a secret to you,” I said, returning her laughter, “but I don’t see any other managers rewarding the members of their teams as effectively as you. For instance, I recall your giving Fredericko soccer tickets as a reward for the work he did on the Tahoma project. He told me how thrilled he was to receive them. Other managers give their people trinkets, such as pens and USB flash drives.”

“Oh, I hope taking the time to know people well enough to reward them with something that will please them isn’t a secret,” she said. But you’re right. Some managers do reward people with trinkets. I don’t believe in that.”

I probed, “Why?”

She looked up for a few seconds, then slowly leveled her eyes with mine and said, “I suppose my behavior follows directly from a story my mentor told me years ago about a reward he received. At the banquet for the program he led, his manager gave him a gold watch.”

“A gold watch sounds like a great reward to me.”

“It did to me, too,” Eleanor said slowly. But it turns out my mentor is allergic to metal. It causes him to break out in hives. Although he never said anything to his manager, he told me he felt insulted by being given something that he could never use. He thought his manager should have known him well enough to give him something he would enjoy.

“The look of hurt on my mentor’s face still drives me to this day to learn enough about each member of my team to know the rewards that would please them.”

Eleanor continued, “You may be surprised, though, to find out that some people tell me that they don’t like receiving awards. They feel like they’re being bribed.”

“What do you do for them?” I asked.

Eleanor leaned back in her chair and said, “I explain to them that receiving a reward is part of a bigger process.”

“What do you mean by that?” I sputtered, caught off guard.

“When I give an award to someone at a big event, it exposes that person and his work to other members of the organization. And that exposure leads directly to more opportunities in the organization for him.”

“Those rewards you gave me did bring me opportunities. No question about it.” I said.

“I haven’t had anyone insist he didn’t want an award after my explanation. But if anyone ever does, I won’t force him to accept an award. I’ll find another way to communicate his value and the value of his work to the other members of the organization.”

“Are there other questions I should be asking about rewards?” I asked.

Eleanor looked up and didn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“I can’t think of anything.”

“Then tell me your thoughts on recognition,” I said.

“I invest significant energy recognizing things that team members do to help the team be more effective. The essence of what I do is what my mentor called ?Catch Them Doing It Right.'”

“What did he mean by that?”

“He believed that the behavior of people in organizations is shaped by every organizational action and, just as importantly, every organizational inaction. He thought of recognition both as feedback and as action. He coached me to provide immediate feedback to employees when I caught them doing something right. And he also taught me how to leverage other team members to provide similar feedback.”

“Whoa!” I said. “I remember we had a segment in status meetings where we appreciated people for something specific they had done that helped us. You said it was something you learned from a famous family therapist. That’s recognition?”

“You got it,” Eleanor said. “The part of recognition that’s the most overlooked is providing the feedback as close as possible to when the behavior happens.”

“What else should I be asking you about recognition?” I asked.

“You should be asking me why it’s important to recognize a behavior as soon as possible.”

“You’re right. That’s exactly what I should be asking. Please tell me why.”

Eleanor’s eyes sparkled as she said, “It’s to increase the chances that the behavior is repeated by that member. Then the other members who hear the recognition consider exhibiting similar behavior. I like to think of it as planting the seeds of effective behaviors.”

“Is there anything else should I be asking you about recognition?”

She smiled. “I can’t think of anything. And now is a good stopping point because I have another meeting in five minutes. Did the discussion help you?”

“Yes, I got more help than I expected. Thanks for your help, Eleanor. Would it be alright if I sent you an email outlining my understanding?”

“Of course, I would like that. And please let Deanna know that I appreciate her for the coaching she gave Sanjay today on putting automated unit tests in his code. That’s going to pay dividends in speed and quality as we go through the development of the new product. Normally I would send her an email, but I think it would be more powerful coming from you,” she said with a wink.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronald September 6, 2015 at 11:03 am

great learning… I wish I could send this to my managers as well…. :)

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Steven M. Smith September 8, 2015 at 2:31 pm

Hi Ronald, I recommend that you do send it to your manager.

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