How Social Recognition Impacts Diversity – and Why That’s So Important

Dec 17, 2015

“Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.”  William Sloane Coffin Jr.

Recently, I was thinking about how employee recognition happens, particularly from the perspective of the one doing the nominating – a supervisor, a peer, or even a direct report.

If we think a bit about that process, there are two things that will happen.

  1. The nominator first needs to recognize that the person behaved in a way that was fully and truly consistent with the company’s culture, values, and ambitions.
  2. The nominator then needs to provide recognition to that person, acknowledging the importance and value of that behavior.

Best practices of recognizing behavior

The best practices of providing recognition are pretty well established (covered both on this blog and elsewhere). We know that recognition needs to be timely, social, and linked to key strategic goals and objectives.

The best practices of recognizing behavior are a little trickier and tend to touch more upon the mental processes of each individual nominator.

Employees must have a simultaneous understanding of the familiar behaviors that should be recognized (typically based on the core values), and be open to novel or creative behaviors that demonstrate those core values that should also be recognized.

Sometimes it is easier to focus on the former because those behaviors are more of a known quantity – simply put, they are easier to recognize.

Research in cognitive science underscores this point and the difficulty we have in recognizing behaviors that don’t already fit into our known mental universe. Each of us have prototypes in our minds about what core values-aligned behaviors look like, and we are thus more likely to notice behaviors that match those prototypes.

The power of social recognition

However, new, “out-of-the-box” behaviors, even if they embody those same core values, are much less likely to be recognized if they don’t match our prototypes and expectations.

This is where the power of social recognition comes into play! Rather than rely solely on traditional, top-down recognition, which involves one person’s expectations about what positive behaviors ought to look like, social recognition adds the input of the entire team to combine the unique contributions of everyone’s personal experiences and expectations. With input from anyone, the recognition program is more likely to catch these novel behaviors, and perhaps even catch more of the traditional behaviors.

So why does all of this matter?

Organizations are becoming increasingly diverse, in terms of demography, ideas, and personal histories. Business problems are becoming increasingly complex, requiring similarly complex repertoires of behaviors to achieve success.

Social recognition allows organizations to leverage the diversity of these individuals, catching in real-time behaviors that may have gone under the radar in the past, but have the potential to drive the company and its culture forward.

Incorporating new behaviors

Think of your own organization. How are you working to ensure the recognition of the full spectrum of values-based behaviors, both in catching more of the traditional behaviors and taking advantage of the opportunities presented by those more creative, less familiar behaviors?

The next step? The continuous process of incorporating new behaviors into the repertoires of everyone in a positivity-driven learning culture (but that’s another post!).

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

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