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Kudos And Public Recognition In The Office And In Remote

How to foster a recognition culture while in remote


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Maria Chec

3 years ago | 7 min read

A good rule of thumb for giving feedback is to praise in public and criticize in private. When you have something positive to say about a team member, make sure it is heard, but if you are issuing productive feedback, handle it one-on-one.

I’d like to explain both in separate articles. Today we will explore how to foster a culture of recognition and why it is important for our Agile companies.

We will learn about different kinds of motivation, I will explain what Kudos are, and let’s see how our Kudos box can go digital.

Plus, I’ll give you a crash course about what Management 3.0 and Nonviolent Communication have to say about recognition. Let’s see how to give thanks like a pro.

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Recognition culture

As Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches, we are continuously searching for improvement. Are we just as frequently stopping to celebrate things that are going well? We all love receiving gratitude, why aren’t we expressing it often enough?

The recognition culture is precisely about avoiding the pitfall of:

“No matter how hard you work you never hear a good word from anybody. But make one mistake and there’s always somebody jumping all over you!”

I first learned about Kudos in Jurgen Appelo’s book on Management 3.0. I have the version with pictures called “Managing for Happiness”. If you haven’t heard about it, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy.

If you ever thought about becoming a manager, it is a must-read. It gamifies the experience and is fun to read and practice. I explain more about Management 3.0 and leadership best practices in my article “Leadership Is Not A Role, It Is A Relationship”.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic motivation

Kudos are described in the first chapter of the book. The subtitle goes “Motivate people with better rewards”. First, let’s explain the two different kinds of motivation to understand why it is important.

Extrinsic motivation is fuelled by external rewards like money, grades, or praise, e.g. the employee of the month. The common pitfall here is that the incentives make people stop doing their tasks just for the joy of well-done work and start looking for rewards. And rewards based on outcomes increase the risk of cheating. People will find any shortcut to get the bonus and in the process, they may lose the enjoyment of work.

Just think about all those bankers in the US in 2008 who gave out mortgages to their customers like candies just to get their cut. Here’s how a badly thought bonus scheme can drown not only a company but whole countries!

Of course, we are talking about knowledge work, in environments based on highly repetitive work, the rewards help keep you going. However, they need to be adjusted from time to time because after some time they may stop working.

Intrinsic motivation is different, here the behavior is triggered from within a person according to their values and judgments. It is where longevity and true engagement will come from.

What are Kudos and what do they have to do with intrinsic motivation?

Kudo cards are small tokens employees give each other when they want to express gratitude. I am used to using the template Jurgen Appelo has on his management 3.0 website but you can use anything, even send a short message on Slack.

Kudos template as per Management 3.0
Kudos template as per Management 3.0

In the old-normality, we would install a Kudo box in the cafeteria of our office. We would ask the employees to recognize each other’s behavior by leaving Kudos Cards in the box. Then on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis, during informal company gatherings like breakfasts, we would read the cards aloud.

After each readout, the person who received a Kudo would come and pick up their card. As per public recognition, remember? This way we were able to create our Kudos collections on our desk.

In the remote reality, where many of us will stay for a little longer or forever, you can create a Kudos channel on Slack or Teams. And you can use the online tool I like to use kudobox.co to write digital kudos.

Once the card is written you can download it or take a screenshot and post it on the channel tagging the person you wish to express gratitude to. In my company the Kudos come on a daily basis.

When we receive thanks from another colleague in the form of Kudos it usually is unexpected and a sincere way to give thanks. Recognition and public praise elevate our social status. And this stimulates serotonin in the brain.

That’s why we feel so good when we are praised. Giving Kudos is a way of recognizing each other. Not just top to bottom but between peers. It is harder to cheat the system when rewards are not scheduled, anticipated, or promised in advance. Plus, having a community that enjoys their interactions helps to keep their engagement and loyalty.

Elevating social status may seem like an external motivation and to a certain extent, it is. However, status can be a very personal treat. Feeling that others value your input, experience, and willingness to help can go hand in hand with our internal values.

Six traits for positive rewards

Appelo lists six traits of positive rewards, which also explains why giving Kudos is a great way to stimulate intrinsic motivation:

  1. Don’t promise rewards in advance — yearly bonus, an employee of the month, those are anticipated rewards, research shows however that when acknowledgment of work comes as a surprise, intrinsic motivation will not be undermined — Kudos are unexpected.
  2. Keep anticipated rewards small — there are a lot of stories about Hackathons at work going awry because a big prize was set. When people focus on the reward instead of a great idea to work on, then their creativity can be hindered and instead of being innovative they will focus on “what the CTO will love most”. So keeping anticipated rewards small is a good idea to keep the creativity.
  3. Reward continuously not once — celebrate daily wins and key accomplishments, don’t wait for big events. You can give kudos in digital form on a daily basis by creating a Kudos Slack channel.
  4. Reward publicly, not privately — as mentioned previously, the key is to recognize in public and make clear what is being rewarded and why. It gives everyone an idea about the desired behavior according to our company culture.
  5. Reward behavior not outcome — outcomes can often be achieved through shortcuts and behavior is about hard work and effort.
  6. Reward peers, not subordinates — peers may know better than managers which colleague deserves a reward.

Define recognition

A good practice I noticed in some companies is to tie the company values to recognition. Let’s imagine one of our company values is to be “Collaborative”. Then on a Kudos template, you would have those values instead of a generic “Good job!”.

Typically, you’d have a little description of what “collaborative” means for your company. This can serve as a guide for people to look for certain desirable behavior in their colleagues. This way people are much better fitted to address those qualities in other people’s behavior.

What do we write?

This is the most important part for me. And for this part, I recommend you watch Marshall Rosenberg’s training in Nonviolent Communication. He explains like no one else why saying “Great job!” or “You’re brilliant!” really means nothing. What was the behavior we would like to keep and have more of? We need to name it.

When expressing gratitude we want to let the other person know specifically what they did that made life more wonderful for us. Not just give some vague generality like “Nice work!”

Marshall’s proposition is to explain how someone’s behavior has helped us or had a positive effect on us, the product, or the company.

  1. Describe a concrete action — bring to other people’s attention concretely what they have done that has made life more wonderful for us. Avoid vague generalizations. E.g. “You offered to help me with the presentation.”
  2. How did it make you feel — “I felt relieved when you offered to help”; “I felt energized after the warm-up before the training.”
  3. What need of yours has been met —” I felt relieved when you offered to help because I felt very lost. I didn’t know how to start this presentation and needed some direction.”

Receiving gratitude

The truth is we are somewhat uncomfortable with giving and receiving. Marshall Rosenberg says we are used to receiving gratitude in two polar ways. Both coming from egotism:

  1. Feeling superior because we deserved this gratitude.
  2. Shrugging it off — saying “That’s nothing”; “De nada”; “Nie ma za co” — we have that expression in many languages. Rosenberg calls it “false humility” as it denies the importance of appreciation.

Why not receive gratitude joyfully? Why not say, “I’m happy to have helped!” or even “Anytime!”. To do that we need to stop fearing getting thanks.

I really like the following lines from a book by Marianne Williamson:

“Playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

“When we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

A culture of recognition can be trained. And we can do it in our own way, so it best fits us and our company culture, this way it doesn’t feel fake or forced.

As Scrum Masters, it is part of our role to foster a feedback culture, where inspection and adaptation don’t just happen on a special occasion but become a part of our everyday work. Hope this article will inspire you to foster the celebration of small and big wins on a daily basis!

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Created by

Maria Chec

I make sense of chaos. Drive focus and coordination of numerous teams. And I am a content creator, check out my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/AgileStateofMind


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