Relationships at Work - Your Honest Guide to Building Workplace Connections and Avoiding Leadership Blind Spots.

Why Leadership Needs an Employee Recognition Framework

April 30, 2024 Russel Lolacher - leadership and workplace relationship advocate Episode 154
Why Leadership Needs an Employee Recognition Framework
Relationships at Work - Your Honest Guide to Building Workplace Connections and Avoiding Leadership Blind Spots.
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Relationships at Work - Your Honest Guide to Building Workplace Connections and Avoiding Leadership Blind Spots.
Why Leadership Needs an Employee Recognition Framework
Apr 30, 2024 Episode 154
Russel Lolacher - leadership and workplace relationship advocate

In this episode of Relationships at Work, Russel chats with Workhuman's practice leader and social recognition expert Brenda Pohlman on implementing an employee recognition and gratitude program.

Brenda shares her thoughts, stories and experiences with...

  • Recognition as a key to culture.
  • The need for a detailed recognition framework.
  • Cultural sensitivity in recognition practices.
  • Technology's role in facilitating recognition.
  • Why personal appreciation matters.
  • Simple acts of recognition can have a huge impact.

And connect with me for more great content!

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Relationships at Work, Russel chats with Workhuman's practice leader and social recognition expert Brenda Pohlman on implementing an employee recognition and gratitude program.

Brenda shares her thoughts, stories and experiences with...

  • Recognition as a key to culture.
  • The need for a detailed recognition framework.
  • Cultural sensitivity in recognition practices.
  • Technology's role in facilitating recognition.
  • Why personal appreciation matters.
  • Simple acts of recognition can have a huge impact.

And connect with me for more great content!

Russel Lolacher: Hi, Brenda. Welcome to the show.

Brenda Pohlman: Thank you, Russel. Glad to be here.

Russel Lolacher: Oh, we're going to talk about recognition. We're at Workhuman. And recognition is the name of the game when it comes to Workhuman. So I'm thrilled to get into this. But, you know, I can't get over here if we don't start here, which is asking the first question I ask all of my guests, which is, Brenda, what is your best or worst employee experience?

Brenda Pohlman: Yeah. So I'm going to go with a best, which is, yeah, I know right? And it's funny because the, you know, the worst stands out, which is the sad thing I suppose about us as humans. It's just the way it is, but, but I'm not going to go there. So I'll, yeah, I'll talk about a really positive work experience and I'm going to go way back to when I started my career.

So this was, you know, a long time ago, probably 30 years ago, even now. And it was, it felt like sort of the first real job that I had out of college, if you will. You know, I'd worked, but you know, I don't know, this just, this felt like a kind of like a serious job in a way. And it was working in retail and I got this job managing a, a store.

For this global clothing brand that I was really excited about. A great, great company and a great mission. And, you know, and I was really inspired. But it was a little interesting that I got the job to begin with. I had gone to apply for a job that was sort of a step below that. I was applying for an assistant manager job in a store, one of their store locations.

And I ended up getting a job as the store manager in a different location. And it was, It was such a rewarding experience because it, it wasn't what I thought maybe I was ready for or capable of doing. And it was a great example of a, like a time when somebody saw something in my background or my skill set and said, I think, I think it's worth a shot, right?

I think we should take, we should take a chance on this, on this person. And I ended up working for a manager who very much had that mindset and throughout that kind of three or so year journey, I was given lots of opportunity to do lots of cool things. And yeah, I think it was, it was just a time when I really understood that having a manager who saw you for the skills that you brought and the contributions that you could make and was willing to, you know, take a chance and allow you to take some risk.

Like, I think I processed, Oh, that really matters. I don't think I understood that that matters. Maybe actually, Russel, it was the first time where I understood how much leaders matter to our own personal work experience. And I was probably 25 at the time, right? But hadn't really known that before.

Russel Lolacher: So is it the learning that makes it stand out?

And I ask this because you went back 30 years to find a good experience. So I usually get bad. And as I've said on the podcast before, people going back 20, 30 years, that's trauma. That's not a bad day if you have to go for that far back, but it's rare that it happens where it's a good experience. So for you to have to go back that far, I'm thinking it's either because it was a teachable moment for you, that you haven't had that clarity since or the bar's been so low since you had that job that that one sticks out.

Brenda Pohlman: You know that's a great question, right and I can see how you would go to that place. I think it's almost a little bit of the opposite. I think I have been very fortunate in my career to work for some amazing leaders. I've had very long 10 years at a you know, a few organizations and I've worked for some of the same people for a good long while and I've been very fortunate.

And I think why this experience so long ago, so early in my career stands out is because today those are the table stakes for me. It doesn't stand out because this is where the bar is for me, right? This is where the bar should be for all of us. We all want to work for good leaders. Some of us are going to insist we work for good leaders, right?

So I think today, my work experience day to day is like, this is what I expect. I expect I have a great relationship with my leader. I expect to get all that stuff out of my leader today that I was getting 25 years ago. I just think 25 years ago, it stood out because I didn't know how important that was.

And it was probably the first time I was getting it. Now we know to get it. We know to expect it. And if we don't, we move on to another, another leader or another organization, right?

Russel Lolacher: Or we don't and suffer for way too long. I mean, that's, I hear you, but so many people are in positions where they don't go anywhere because it's easier to go along to get along.

And just, it's a paycheck, I'm afraid of the unknown, change scares me. So I hear what you're saying, and I know in my own career I haven't necessarily, left roles that didn't... because it was just easier to stay Right, even if they weren't bad. They just weren't, they weren't helping me grow either.

Brenda Pohlman: Absolutely.

Russel Lolacher: Right? So you get in this rut.

Brenda Pohlman: You do and and you know I think it's probably not a stretch to say that it's maybe even a little bit of a privileged point of view, right? That not everybody can make a change for those reasons right? Not everybody is going to feel so empowered to make a change.

Based on their own personal circumstances. And I'm saying this from my, uh, on my high horse here is somebody who hasn't actually, who has stayed a long time at some of the organizations I've worked for. So it's not like I'm a, I'm a big change proponent necessarily. I've just been very fortunate to work for some good people. And I understand that's not everybody's scenario and that's, and that's too bad and that's what we're here to change.

Russel Lolacher: Absolutely. And a key part of understanding a good, healthy culture, understanding good leadership is recognition. It is... It is such an integral piece, and yet you hear a lot more talk about trust building, psychological safety.

You hear these, not to say that those aren't vitally important, but I don't know if recognition gets enough of a spotlight. Well, uh, we're talking about resilience all the time. We're talking about change management all the time. And yet, even if you get through that, it's how you handle those things is where recognition sort of makes that connection.

What is your involvement with recognition when it comes to working at Workhuman, obviously their software is a big piece of recognition in that, but you're going out to organizations to help them. So explain what that role is.

Brenda Pohlman: Yeah, so I do, my team and I, we do work on the sort of the non technical side of that equation, where we're helping organizations who are embarking on that journey of using recognition to an advantage where it supports the culture and it supports business impacts and so forth and creates a much more positive employee experience for the, the people in the business.

We are supporting the part of that process that relates to ensuring you have a strategy for that, that we're, that we're going to implement this piece of software, which is what it is at its core, that we're going to do that in a way that feels very strategic and very supportive of your particular business goals, you know, that company's particular needs, and we're going to design it in a way that will allow the experience to achieve the goals you've set. And then we support all of that change management effort because it's a, it's something that we need all employees in the organization to be participating in.

It's not a tool that comes out of HR. And if people use it or don't, it doesn't really matter. Or, you know, it's not an administrative process. It's something we need people to actually be inspired to use and ready to use. So my team and I focus a lot of effort on that change management process and making sure that workforces are ready for the recognition that's being implemented.

Russel Lolacher: And how do you know they're ready or not?

Brenda Pohlman: Yeah, it's a good question.

Russel Lolacher: You knew I was coming with it.

Brenda Pohlman: Yeah, I did, right? And as humans, shouldn't we all be ready for it? Right? Which is such an interesting dynamic. And, and the, the funny thing is, you know, we're, we're not always. It's not a difficult change, but it requires some change management. And I, and I sometimes will say to organizations we're working with who maybe even over index a little bit on the change needed to implement something like this. I'll say, you know, here's, here's how your employees are going to move through the traditional change curve.

It's sort of like, like, oop, blink, done. We've, it took 10 seconds, and we all process the change, right? What was coming? I'm not sure how to feel about this. Why are we abandoning the old way or, or why was, you know, why is it not okay that we had nothing before? I'm not sure how to do this thing now. Oh, okay, now I've accepted it and now I'm actively participating.

So classic change curve, but with something like recognition, because a lot of it is fundamental to who we are. It's not a foreign concept to express gratitude and say thanks. That change curve happens very quickly, which is great because it means that employees can get on board without a whole lot of resistance and organizations can see measurable impact fairly quickly.

Russel Lolacher: I guess the next question for that is how do you measure the value of a recognition focused organization?

Brenda Pohlman: Yeah. Well, the most strategic way to do that is to measure its impact on things that you care about in your business, right? So we know today, there is enormous amounts of evidence Workhuman's own through our Workhuman IQ organization and also lots of external research, research that our customers have done on their own and so forth.

So the proof points are there. I don't think that's a question anymore today, but the impact relates to a whole host of different HR and business results. So things like improved employee retention, improved engagement levels within the workforce, higher degrees of psychological safety and trust, higher, higher degrees of well being.

You know, employees, fascinating, this research that we did with Gallup a little while back spoke to the idea that employees who feel more recognized at work actually say they are thriving in their lives in general to a greater degree than those who don't get recognized at work.

Russel Lolacher: Which shows that there really isn't a barrier between work life.

We're not different people when we come in the front door so, a healthy organization providing that recognition they can take that home with them They can feel that value as well. So maybe I should stop and ask you what does recognition look like? Because I'm thinking, and I know people I've worked with where they're like, just say thank you. Do not mention my name. Do not bring me in front of the class. Do not talk to me. Thank you is enough. While other people love the spotlight and they want to be, you know, patted on the head every five minutes if they can help it. So there is a diversity level to this. So I guess, yeah, to get back to my earlier question is, what are we talking about when we talk about recognition?

Brenda Pohlman: Yeah, I think, and I think you've, you've got a couple of, there are a couple of concepts baked into that question that are really important. So the first one is, you know, when we talk about recognition, we often put it in the context of moments. Meaningful moments of connection between two employees or a leader and a team of employees or groups of employees, right?

It's a connection point. And it's an expression of appreciation about something that that colleague did in their work that was related to something like your company's core value, so a, a behavior that means something to your, your company's business. Or it could be something that you appreciated where they had helped you do something or helped you achieve something, but there's a contribution that a colleague's made that you observed and it sparked a moment in you to say, gosh, that's something I ought to congratulate them on or say, I see that. I see your good work. You did excellent work there. A great job, or thank you because you helped me help the team, you help the business. And there needs to be words conveyed as part of that. And I think that's why it's sort of fundamental to why companies need a framework and a tool, a mechanism, and a message that says, this is how we're going to work together. Without something like that, what we do typically in the workforce is literally just say thank you. You know, sometimes people have good habits around writing emails where they express appreciation to a colleague and so forth.

But we, we need a framework and a tool to actually help bring meaning to these moments because it's, in most cases, it's got to go beyond thank you for it to be something that's reinforcing and really impactful to the recipient. We want to help people understand what you did specifically that mattered and the impact that that contribution had on me as a colleague or the team or the business, right?

And without that, there isn't quite as much depth to that experience.

Russel Lolacher: Does that help with the diversity? Like if there is different ways that people like, and that could be cultural as much as generational, as much as neurodivergency or introverts. Is it the same framework for all, or is there room for personalization?

Brenda Pohlman: I think it's important to have a framework. And then how people use the framework can be very different, and we see that in our work all the time. We see different cultures, like geographic, you know, cultures around the world and different geographies around the world, and even different business cultures will use the recognition program slightly differently.

For example, in Asia, we see a higher percentage of team awards happening as an overall, you know, uh, portion of the recognition activity in the organization, more so than we do in, say, North America, where some of that is much more individualized, like one colleague recognizing another colleague. That speaks a little bit to Asian culture, where it's not maybe quite so comfortable for people to call out a particular individual, right?

They see achievements as team achievements that, lots of people have contributed to and participated in. So we see more team recognition. We, in some places in Europe, we see smaller amounts of public celebration of recognition moments, which is a really fundamental and important piece of this. For something to be part of your culture, it should be visible to others and celebrated.

But it doesn't mean that everybody likes that kind of recognition. So we see more private recognition in parts of Europe than we would say in the US. So lots of ways to layer in that cultural nuance. Nobody's telling anybody exactly how to express appreciation to a colleague. We're just creating a framework and we're saying as a business to our workforce, it's important.

We want you to participate in it. How you do that is really up to you.

Russel Lolacher: I'm thinking of all the work that needs to go in place for this to matter. Having said that, one, a leader needs to know their team. They need to know how they like to be recognized. They also have to have strong values. Because you mentioned earlier that if recognition ties to values, it might be meaningful.

But if the values is just a poster on the wall that nobody gives a crap about, then it doesn't mean anything to go, well, persistence is our value and you were persistent. Thanks check box. But you can flip it to make it personalized and it will matter because we know them, but to make it connect to that corporate level, there needs to be some work of operationalizing those values so people know what they even look like ahead of time. And the other thing I think of is cultures. So there is no such thing as one culture. There is 17, 000 cultures within an organization. And, if the culture's unhealthy, you coming in and going, now we're doing recognition.

I'm like, I don't believe anything that comes out of my boss's mouth, much less recognition. So, so it feels like there's, there needs to be a certain work done before we can even have this serious as a conversation. Is there like a checklist? You know what I mean? Like, because as leaders, we obviously have control over what we can control, but to work on it as a process and a framework for an organization, there's some heavy lifting that needs to get done.

Brenda Pohlman: Yeah, you know, it's, it's a true thing that some companies are more ready for this than others, right? Some workforces, some cultures are more ready than others. And absolutely, you know, a scenario where nobody in the organization is really connected to the company's values and there's been no work done there, anchoring a recognition program around those values feels disconnected.

And we have to do more work in the change management up front to, to, to help, employees understand what that means to be tying a recognition moment and expression of gratitude for a colleague who's done something that represents a value that you're not so super familiar with yourself. Now, ultimately in time, the recognition program is probably the best way and the most efficient way to help employees understand how the values are lived in their work day to day because now we're recognizing people for demonstrating those values in all kinds of jobs and all kinds of pockets of the business, right?

So it's a great reinforcer. In fact, some really successful moments are when we connect a recognition program implementation with the implementation of a new set of company values. And we use the recognition program to be the reinforcer of the new values so that it's not just a poster on the wall.

So we've communicated them, but the way that employees learn how to live them is by seeing all of the recognition that people are getting around them and they themselves for doing work that relates to those values. But that's a tough, that's, it's almost like a chicken and egg, like which came first.

So yeah. And in organizations where, where there's a lack of trust and you don't trust your manager and now we're going to do a recognition program and you're going to get recognized by that manager. I think in those situations where we have to lean into peers, carrying a lot of that weight. So recognition coming from peers would maybe be more meaningful to those sorts of employees than the recognition from a leader.

Russel Lolacher: How is technology such a factor? I mean we talk about technology, but leaders are complaining that with remote workers they're further away from them. They don't feel as connected. So recognition, how do I do that? Send them an email? Like, it feels impersonal. And then, of course, the platform of Workhuman is a technological tool. So there is that, I don't want to say dehumanizing, because that's not it.

Because I'm also here with you at the Workhuman conference, and I've seen the gratitude tree, and it's amazing. And how it was immediately implemented into this conference, where people embraced the hell out of this thing on day one, to be so much gratitude, given it beat the last conference...

Brenda Pohlman: Amazing.

Russel Lolacher: In one day. So, I hear one side having difficulty with the impersonalness of technology, but while others are really quick to adopt it and go, no, this works for me just fine. How do you walk that line?

Brenda Pohlman: Yeah. It's, it's so important and that gratitude bar is amazing here. I waited in line to get up to the gratitude bar to send a recognition today, right? You know, it's just, it's, it's, there's such a groundswell of connection to that experience, which is great. Yeah. I think the, we would argue plain and simple without the technology, those moments aren't happening and they're not certainly not happening to a scale that is going to move the needle on any HR or business impact that you care about as a, as a business leader.

We know that because we have, for decades now, recognition is often the lowest scoring item in companies engagement surveys year over year over year. So if we're all so good at the expressions of gratitude without a framework and a tool and a message that this is important, why is that the case?

So the technology is the thing that allows all that to happen. It encourages it to happen. It's the inspiration in a way. It's the thing that makes it easier to do. So I, I'm a big proponent of like, we need the technology to make it happen. And without it, it just won't, it won't to the depth that we need it to.

And I think the gratitude bar is a great example. I gave a, I gave a recognition moment, uh, there today to a customer. I'd had a great conversation with him yesterday and really appreciated him being here. And I asked myself, you know, I, I would have had to see him in person in order to say those words to him.

There are thousands of people here. I don't know if I'm going to run into him again, right? I would have had to maybe remember when I got back to the office to send him a note, an email or something or write it down and then hope I did it later. But in that moment, I was inspired and I had a tool and a, and a message that said to me in this experience here, this is really important.

And I went up to the gratitude bar and for two minutes, I thought pretty deeply about that exchange with that customer and how much it meant, right? And I said, I put some nice words in a message and I don't know, I'm not sure I would have said that to him in person.

Russel Lolacher: And that speaks to a lot of people that are maybe introverted and it, it facilitates when they don't have that, because I mean, we always celebrate the extroverts, right?

Because it's easy for them to do stuff because they have the energy to do that. Others do not. So if they can have a tool that still allows them some equality in being able to perform, I think that's, that's important no matter what the tool may or may not be.

Brenda Pohlman: Great point.

Russel Lolacher: How do you know if it's not working? How do you know if there's not enough? How do you know when they call you? Like you know what I mean? Like how do they know that your organization needs to do something about its recognition?

Brenda Pohlman: Yes.

Russel Lolacher: Whether it's a program or organically?

Brenda Pohlman: Because your employees will tell you. Your employees will tell you.

They will say it. They will say it outright. They will say it to their managers and leaders. They will report it in your engagement survey. They will say it in exit interviews. They will say it on Glassdoor. It's not a quiet thing. It's not hidden. And I, it's the number one reason that customers are inspired to come to work or, or it's the number one thing they talk about when we have a conversation about why, you know, why are you here? Why are we , why are we having a discussion about recognition and, and how it can help? And, and it's because employees are asking for it, especially today, you know, especially today's workforce. Younger generations, it's just, it's, it's part of how they've all grown up and and they're asking in interviews. Tell me about my opportunities in this organization to be recognized for the work I do.

And as an employer, we, we better have an answer.

Russel Lolacher: And I think, I was just thinking this, is that, keep in mind, just because Gen Z, Gen Z for us Canadians, are being vocal about it, don't think it's not the Gen Xers and the Millennials that also think it, they just didn't know they could say it out loud.

Brenda Pohlman: I 100% agree with that. Yes. Yes.

Russel Lolacher: You can say meetings suck? I didn't know you could do that. And then suddenly these Gen Z'ers are saying like these truth sayers that we've been feeling forever that finally is saying it out loud. So I find that super interesting. So as, and if anybody says it's easy, Brenda wouldn't have a job if this stuff was easy.

So I think it's important for organizations to really understand this. So I it a little personal here as we wrap this up, what's the best. What's the best recognition Brenda's gotten?

Brenda Pohlman: Oh yeah, that's a, gosh, it's a question I should be so ready for, right? This is, this is the world I live in every day.

It's my job. I know. You know what's, you know what's interesting is, uh, we at Workhuman, we, we absolutely walk the talk. This is such an incredible example of that. You know, this is not a business where we are marketing and promoting a thought out into the world that we're not living ourselves. And we talk about our, our own recognition program that's built on our own tool, our own software.

It is absolutely the most highly invested in recognition program on the globe. I'm certain of that and it is the most highly adopted. So over the course of of the year, 99 percent of all work human employees will be recognized formally and, and far more than just once in some cases, literally dozens of times, right?

For, for small moments that really mattered. So we're all benefiting from a lot of that gratitude. I, I think some of my favorite moments over the years have probably come from my own team members. So we're allowed to, recognize anybody in the organization. So if I wanted to recognize the CEO for his wonderful keynote yesterday, I could do that.

But it's not as common as leaders recognizing our teams and them recognizing each other. And I think those have been really meaningful moments when someone on my team has reached out and in a moment that maybe felt like it was kind of out of nowhere and said, Hey, I just wanted you to understand that I really appreciate the support you've given me lately.

Or you're, you know, you coached me through a series of things over the last however many weeks and it's really mattered. And I appreciate the compassion and in the, you know, the interest in my own personal success success here. And I think, I think those are things where it's like, you know, you don't hear that all the time.

Like in my, during my check ins with my team, those, I mean people say thank you, but we're not, you know, we're not kind of getting into that. So I think some of those have been moments that are like, wow, that's really felt really powerful, like really powerful, you know.

Russel Lolacher: Well, that was good. I know I noticed how long it took you to get to you.

So I appreciate that as a leader, but let me tell you about how everybody else is being recognized before I get to me. I appreciate that immensely. No, it's very good. So to wrap this up, I do want to say, Brenda, that I want to, you know, show a little appreciation for you for being so flexible. For those listening, we had a horrible time with technology yesterday and had to rerecord this based on the technology just failing me miserably. Whether it was my fault or technology, Brenda was amazing through all of it. So, thank you for being available to do this once again. So, appreciate you. Thank you so much for that. Last question.

What is one simple thing people can do right now to improve their relationships at work?

Brenda Pohlman: I would say, just say thank you more often in a meaningful way. Look people in the eye, even if it's over zoom and say thank you and add maybe a sentence or two about why you're thanking them. Right. I mean, you knew I was going to make it gratitude fueled, right? Yeah, we have to, we have to lean into this.

Yeah. And, and, and just, I think just doing a little bit, uh, not a better job, putting a little bit more, a little bit more effort into those thank yous, with a little bit more detail and a little bit more sincerity and more frequency and I think we'd all feel much more connected to each other and to the work we do.

Russel Lolacher: Thank you so much for being here, Brenda.

Brenda Pohlman: You're welcome. Thank you for having me. This was really fun.