What object is several times larger than most homes, can comfortably accommodate enough people to populate a small town, weighs more than 400 tons, and can fly?
The answer, of course, is a jumbo jet. By employing laws of physics discovered by Newton, Bernoulli, and others, the jet is able to overcome its own mammoth weight and create the lift that allows it to soar.
When it relates to human performance, the airplane metaphor is apropos. Many “people programs” that manage a promising takeoff eventually cough and sputter to a crash. Without something to provide lift, most of them never even get off the ground. The burden of their own weight—inertia, skepticism, resistance—is simply too much to surmount.
Most dictionaries describe lift as carrying or directing from a lower to a higher position, the power available for rising to a new level, or a force opposing the tug of gravity.
Creating the lift that allows people to soar in the workplace is the focus of Making Work Human: How Human-Centered Companies Are Changing the Future of Work and the World. Workplace experts Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine highlight principles and practices that can help anyone in any job. Their consulting firm is aptly named WorkHuman.
In the same way that aerodynamic lift can transport us above the storms of our planet, the principles of human interaction can elevate us above inertia and resistance to new realms of performance.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Your research shows that the number one thing employees want in their organizational culture is “appreciation.” What kinds of appreciation seem to be valued most by people in the workplace?
Eric Mosley: Authentic human connection is the most important factor, and it’s most powerfully shown in expressions of appreciation. It’s more than simple praise when someone expresses, “This thing you did made our team work better … our customers happy … you went beyond what was expected …” People love knowing they made a difference.
Person-to-person interactions tear down walls of anonymity. Adam Grant’s famous call center study showed that when employees met a single person who benefitted from their work for just five minutes, that led to a 142% increase in effort and a 170% increase in revenue. If five minutes of appreciation has that effect, imagine the benefit of dozens of moments like that throughout the year.
Duncan: The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted many things in the workplace. What workplace changes do you see as positive results of the pandemic?
Mosley: I’ve seen so many outpourings of kindness, appreciation and human connection. I think of virtual teams that stepped up to support the work of a stressed-out single parent, and the leader who drops the professional persona to say out loud “We’re all scared and grieving and doing our best.” Research shows that business is now the individual’s most trusted institution and can be a source of great connection. That’s why we say, “Work is the new community.”
In the first days of the pandemic, everyone at Workhuman was trying to adjust, me included. One day a colleague announced she’d given birth, and posted a picture of her baby. The whole company started congratulating her, giving new parent tips and sharing their best wishes. It all happened remotely but the effect was so intimate. That’s when I knew we’d be alright.
Duncan: Loneliness and isolation seem to be increasing at alarming rates in our society. What can business leaders do to help people feel appropriately connected to each other and to their work?
Derek Irvine: Leaders can initiate the cultural changes that make an organization more connected by sharing a vision of inclusiveness, connectivity and trust. They can light the fire of connection and keep feeding it. Community is really built through a thousand daily interactions among peers.
Shawn Achor, the happiness expert, told us that positivity and connection work best when coming from someone other than the team leader. Anyone can write the social script and norms when they learn that they are not the victims of a culture but its co-creators. Leaders set the vision and set the example of public appreciation and connection. Then they stand by and watch the organic web of human connections grow throughout the organization.
Duncan: What can individuals do to combat their own feelings of loneliness and isolation?
Mosley: Over time we learned a profound truth: expressing appreciation changes the giver as well as the receiver. When you write a special message to someone describing how their behavior affected you in a positive way, you show a little more of your human side. You’re a little vulnerable putting it out there. And for that reason, everyone who witnesses that appreciation is touched by it. When you give someone an unexpected award and express authentic recognition, you deepen a relationship and you drive out cynicism, which is the biggest barrier to change.
A few years ago, one of our senior leaders was injured in a car accident and faced a long recovery. He received steady messages of concern and appreciation for months. Instead of isolating, he kept people apprised of his progress. It was a powerful time for everyone. The lesson: even if you’re struggling, keep the lines of communication open, because people really care about you.
Duncan: In what ways does continuous learning enhance the work experience for people?
Irvine: There are two answers to that question. First, most people know that continuous learning is the only way to keep up in their careers. In today’s world, work changes so fast that our skills need steady sharpening and growth.
The second answer is that continuous learning about work, markets, people, ideas, values, community, all of life—is energizing. You might feel a little uncomfortable approaching a new learning experience, but later you feel more alive, growing, capable and strong.
Continuous learning means new opportunities at work, as well as feelings of achievement and higher self-esteem. Not incidentally, it also means more challenges and higher compensation.
Duncan: What are some best practices for extending trust and goodwill to employees?
Irvine: Trust is a feeling that goes beyond truthfulness. It means employees can rely on leaders to follow through on the values they espouse. Research says the five most important factors for increasing trust are 1) an organization’s contributions to make a better society, 2) shared organizational values, 3) a vision for the future, 4) really living out the mission and purpose, and 5) operational decisions that align with all these.
Goodwill is like community. It’s best built peer-to-peer and there are surprises along the way when leaders act like peers (because we’re all human). One of my favorite appreciation moments came when the head of a large medical center kicked off a recognition program by thanking a groundskeeper. He said that patients saw those beautiful grounds and it had a real impact on their health, hopefulness and optimism. That kind of goodwill, which bridges gaps of status or power, is priceless.
Duncan: You’ve identified Belonging, Purpose, Achievement, Happiness, and Vigor as the five dimensions of a positive employee experience. I suspect the order in which you list those dimensions is not random. How do these dimensions affect each other?
Mosley: It’s a virtuous cycle. If you know you belong, anything is possible. If you feel left out, alienated or discriminated against, your engagement is at risk and the cycle stalls.
Purpose and achievement are shared factors because people unite in purpose and almost always achieve together. When you align shared purpose (what we stand for), personal meaning (how I feel significant), and community (feeling attachment to each other) you have an excellent shot at happiness. Vigor is enthusiastic energy—that sense that the more you put into work, the more you get out of it. You might call it the fuel of the cycle.
We also know that giving and receiving appreciation is the great connector among all of these. We’ve collected data on more than five million recognition moments and the pattern is clear: gratitude energizes and accelerates the cycle.
Duncan: What’s the recipe for feedback and recognition that’s most valued by employees?
Irvine: That’s a big question—we’ve spent 20 years refining that recipe and we keep discovering new ways to improve feedback and recognition. Here are some basics:
- Frequency is critical. You can give someone a $2,000 bonus in January and they feel extra motivated for about two weeks. But, you can break that $2,000 into 40 recognition moments averaging $50 in tangible value and you get that same two-week effect 40 different times through the year.
- We’re a storytelling species. You have to connect recognition moments to specific behaviors and shared values (“You really showed integrity when you did this …). That makes them memorable and builds esprit de corps when peers join in with congratulations.
- The additional value for managers is capturing all those recognition moments and applying data analytics, natural language processing and other advanced tools. You can see which departments are working well together, who are the hidden connectors and silent geniuses in your company, who might be a flight risk or who needs coaching, and a hundred other critical facts about organizational health.
- Authenticity is a non-negotiable part of the program. You need a system that encourages genuine human moments and can’t be gamed.
- A program must attach a monetary value (or equivalent like points) to recognition. It makes the system both honest and significant.
- You have to budget enough (but often less than you think). Our shorthand for this is, “Give the people 1% of payroll to give to each other.” The benefits far exceed the cost both in productivity and employee goodwill.
Duncan: What are some common misconceptions regarding recognition?
Mosley: For years I would hear from C-level prospects: “Isn’t this just a popularity contest? Does everybody get a trophy?” That’s a fundamental misconception. A recognition platform worth having is based on real achievement, tied to goals and values, peer-driven, data-rich and secure. In fact, trying to game the system is extremely rare. People join into a merit-based peer-to-peer system with enthusiasm because they’re the people empowered to look for great work behaviors, tell stories, and give awards.
Our training teaches users to be highly specific. A vague “thanks for all you do” doesn’t really move the needle on engagement. Compare that to a public award saying, “Jen and Sami, I’m so grateful that you came in on the weekend to proofread all the new marketing collateral aloud to one another. You taught me the foolproof trick of reading copy backwards to catch even the tiniest mistake! You went the extra mile to achieve it and showed incredible diligence!” That’s a memorable story and you can list ten ways it reflects values and benefits the organization.
Another misconception: We’re often asked if managers should be gatekeepers, controlling the system. Managers approve awards, but they act more as coaches and cheerleaders, guiding and encouraging and celebrating peer-to-peer recognition. They shouldn’t be the sole givers of appreciation.
Duncan: A good manager, you say, is more coach than commander. What does that “look like” in observable behavior?
Irvine: The ultimate learning technology is conversation! Managers are critical to the continuous learning culture because they can identify who needs to learn what, and when.
The best, most memorable learning happens in the flow of work—learning by doing. So managers should think of their coaching role not as classroom teachers, but as participants in many informal conversations. And here’s a startling statistic: Positive attention is 30 times more powerful than negative attention in creating high performance on a team. That means lots of positive feedback, instruction, and recognition in public. Developmental feedback and difficult conversations must be private.
No manager can be everywhere at once, so they should coach everyone to “catch each other doing the right thing” by recognizing moments that go beyond the job description. They can highlight hard-to-define but easy-to-recognize values like innovation, creativity, caring, integrity, grit, customer focus, diligence. The list is endless. When employees understand those values and are on the lookout for them, the cadence of recognition and positivity picks up into a self-sustaining flow.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.