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The Quick Win for Boosting Trust: Acknowledgement

by Chris Dyer

Recent research shows that people who tend to trust their co-workers and managers score higher in performance and have a higher commitment to the team than those who are more distrustful. Makes sense. Trust is the backbone of any good relationship. But building trust among people who hardly know each other can be tough.

People have a hardwired incentives bias – one that results in a double standard. We tend to assume that our own motivations are intrinsic or honorable. I work because I love to do a good job, we tell ourselves. Yet, we tend to assume that other people operate from base motivations – that they are only doing their jobs because they get paid. These were the collective findings of four different studies by Duke University researchers into incentive biases. Of all the mental baggage we bring to work, instinctively mistrusting our peers is among the most damaging. It’s amazing we ever get anything done. Of course, the human race would never have evolved if this preconception did not soften over time.

Fortunately, as we rub elbows with people, we start to see them in a different light. They prove to us that they can be trusted, maybe by communicating shared values, fulfilling promises, or mutually respecting certain qualities. But this organic method is time consuming, and only works to bring us closer to people within our personal circles. We need is to trust more people, and do it faster. The best way to do this on a wide scale is through acknowledgement.

Public recognition can positively affect opinions without the need to personally interact with the recipients. How might this work for you? Suppose that Sharon, a co-worker whom you trust, recognizes Joe for helping her meet an important deadline. Joe works in another department and you don’t know him. So, let’s say she posts this in the company newsletter. Joe’s visibility and credibility just went up. Now you know who he is and believe you might trust him. But, if Sharon had only sent Joe an e-mail to thank him, instead of sharing that information in the newsletter, that trust boost would be lost on you.

We need these interactions to expand beyond our natural prejudices about abilities and those around us – to move past a fixed mindset. Acknowledgement is also vital to our personal well-being. Most of us like to be recognized. We like people to respect our work ethic, ingenuity and skill at what the company is paying us to do. We want our bosses to know that we can be trusted, and our co-workers to know that we are competent and motivated. We want to feel good about what we do, beyond what we are being paid.

CASE STUDY: The green flag system at PeopleG2

To open up channels for recognition at the company I founded, PeopleG2, I followed some advice about public acknowledgement from Kim Shepherd of Decision Toolbox. This resulted in the mechanism that we still use today.

As a remote company in which everyone works from home or a different location, PeopleG2 uses an online communication program called HipChat to stay in touch on matters big and small. Like Slack and other instant-messaging programs, it allows our people to stay connected one-on-one, as well as in virtual group ‘rooms’ where teams or the entire company can log in and participate. When we started this program, I created a chat room called The Water Cooler. It’s an open forum where staff are invited to talk about anything at all, if it is work appropriate, and where we say thank you publicly. To highlight these acknowledgements, we use what we call a ‘green flag’, one of our mechanisms for recognition.

Here’s how it works: we created a computer emoji, or stylized image, of a green flag. When people want to shout out co-workers’ contributions, they add this icon to their Water Cooler message, and say things like, “A big green flag to Bryan for helping with a client question I didn’t know how to answer.” Or, the announcement acknowledges help with a heavy workload or training expertise. This recognition comes from a peer, but then everyone in the company who signs in to this chat room also posts thanks, applause or other well wishes.

That is where the magic happens. It feels so good to have dozens of people congratulate you. As I mentioned earlier, this reinforces your trust in others and in the reliability of the company – in other words, your good deeds will not go unnoticed. With a little encouragement, staff members green-flag each other of their own accord. Occasionally, someone will give a green flag to a manager, or vice versa, but we ask that managers curb their urge to do so, since we find the practice to be most powerful peer to peer.

We explain the nuances of the green flag to new hires and we try to ensure that managers don’t go overboard with top-down public praise, not because it is bad, but because people start expecting it to come from the top, and not from each other.

Putting it into action at your organization

If your company has a traditional office space, you could develop a similar system through e-mail blasts, a company newsletter or in physical meetings. Think of using fun props or fanfare, if your team is physically together in an office. Let your employees take the reins on this most of the time. You don’t have to track instances, but shoot for a balance like an 80/20 percent split. Make it easy for staff to give shout-outs. Managers should focus their praise less frequently and more formally, such as in personal e-mails, letters, reviews, etc, which can then be reposted. Top-down acknowledgement gains significance when it is rare and when your boss puts it in writing and delivers it directly to you.

We’ve seen acknowledgement make a real difference in people trusting their co-workers, and ultimately, finding more enjoyment in their work. Give it a try at your organization!

This extract from The Power of Company Culture by Chris Dyer is ©2018 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd. Use the code POWER20 for 20% off.

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