Why We Need More Recognition In WordPress

Parents holding a newborn in front of another baby.

This week I had one of those moments where the way I operate at work completely conflicted with how I operate at home. Yes, I’m guilty of being … a hypocrite parent. 

Like many parents, the work of child-rearing is often something that happens when my mental walls are down. Parenting, I think, happens in an environment where the trust is so extremely high that I, as a parent, can get away with a lot. That’s not always good and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

After writing a lot about psychological safety and giving good feedback it’s been front-of-mind for me. So when my son, who admittedly can be clumsy, spilled three different cups on the floor in about five minutes, his reaction (and my reaction) jolted me. 

Kids playing with balloons and on their way outside.

As soon as he’d spilled the first cup, my reaction was one you may recognize, “Please pay attention to what you’re doing and be more careful.” If you read that without emotion, please add a little whine, exhaustion and desperation into your voice to fully capture the moment. 

His response was to freeze and not be able to figure out what to do next followed by me raising my voice and communicating the urgent need to grab some paper towels. If you didn’t read that as me emotionally telling him to hurry up and grab some paper towels and wipe it up, you missed some … ahem … parenting. 

The second time around, he looked to see if I was paying attention. I was, of course, and my response was equally desperate but with some sharper words. 

The third time around, he was frustrated with himself and looked at his hands like he couldn’t believe they would let him down. I had an eye-roll for the ages and a sigh deeper than the Grand Canyon. If you haven’t guessed yet, I can be quite dramatic too. He looked at me in expectation of the rebuke and that’s when it hit me.

Why do we parent differently than we manage?

I was doing everything to my son that I try to avoid with my co-workers and direct reports. I wasn’t assuming positive intent (he was trying to clean up the dishes), I wasn’t seeking to understand by asking questions and I wasn’t providing the kind of feedback that would give him the confidence to try and tackle the problem again in the future. 

I felt like a failure. At that moment and often since then, I’ve thought a lot about the culture I create at home and have wondered why I don’t think the culture I’m trying to create at work cannot happen at home too. In fact, if I cannot do it at home in a high-trust, failure-friendly environment, what makes me think I’ll be able to do it with my team in the workplace?

In particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about why so much of my parenting is reactive rather than proactive. Why is it that the moments I have with my kids are often around challenges and issues when something isn’t working out the way we want or expect it to?

I was reminded of a parenting lesson I’d learned early on that the most effective parenting happens when I can catch my kids doing something right and praise them for it, rather than always reacting and correcting when they do something wrong.

I wonder if there’s something there for us as leaders too?

A woman celebrating her special day by eating cake with her hands.

Get caught doing something right.

Coming off of a few challenging weeks in the WordPress ecosystem where lots of things have been said about what’s wrong and who’s wrong (or is that just a typical week?), I started to wonder what it would look like if we flipped the script a bit and started to talk more about what’s right?

I’m not just talking at the project or milestone level either. At the individual level, what would it look like if collectively we invested some of our energy into catching people doing something right? 

Let’s localize this a bit first. There’s a concept in organizational development circles around the power and importance of employee recognition. For a lot of larger organizations, some effort has been put into institutionalizing recognition because all the studies show that it has an outsized impact on employee engagement and retention.

For example, organizations with recognition programs had a 31% lower voluntary turnover rate and 28.6% lower frustration levels. More than 50% of employees want more recognition from their immediate manager and over 40% are looking for it from their immediate coworkers too. 

We all want to be caught doing something right by our coworkers and leaders and rewarded for it.  So how do we move from being focused on what people might do wrong to one where we catch people doing something right?

1. Clarify Core Values and Key Behaviours

In order to effectively catch people doing something right, we need to have clarity on what those right things are. At a base level, that means we’ve got clearly defined and well-articulated core values that everyone in the organization is aware of.

This is one thing that Envato does really well internally. When I was working there, a lot of our evaluation criteria for quarterly reviews (for managers, peers and direct reports) was around how we lived out the company’s core values in our day-to-day effort.

Not only were we able to deeply internalize the core values of the company, but we were also able to spot when things were counter to our stated values much sooner too. 

Dig deeper into the importance of core values by checking out this article by Patrick Lencioni in the Harvard Business Review.

We also need to have a solid understanding of what our key behaviours are as an organization or a team. When I was at Rocketgenius (makers of Gravity Forms), the team had a list of key behaviours that we wanted to be known for and that we were working into the culture (you might call these ways of working).

An important thing to consider is the difference between recognition and appreciation. Recognition is about rewarding what was done while appreciation is about celebrating how it was done. Both are important and you could argue that appreciation is a form of recognition.

When I celebrate my son cleaning up his room, it’s that he took the initiative to clean up without being asked or prompted. Seriously, when he does this it’s amazing. Like double rainbows and narwhals, rare and beautiful. 

I recognize that he picked up all the clothes off his floor and put them in the appropriate basket or drawer by giving him a hug (and some ice cream).

A man checking his notes and preparing to send a card to someone.

2. Make Recognition a Core Outcome of Management

Recognition is something all leaders need to model. It’s incredibly easy for us to fall into the illusion of transparency and assume that people around us can read our emotional states and understand how we feel about them and their work without explicitly saying so or doing anything.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have felt lost or unsure of myself because I didn’t know how those around me perceived me or my work. Imposter syndrome is ever-present and it can become easy for me to get anxious and assume I’m just doing everything wrong and no one likes me. Proactive recognition (okay, probably some validation too) acts as a set of beacons to help me navigate the fog of work (especially remote work).

I’m probably projecting my own anxieties a little here. Yet I still believe that when we make recognition a core requirement of our team leads, we start to get the balance better between people and products (one of my personal core values is ‘people and products’).

Too often in management, we are so focused on tactical or delivery outcomes that we forget that we require people to help us achieve those outcomes. We’re all probably used to being evaluated on our output, but how often are we equally accountable for the way we achieve those results?

Imagine how different our teams would be if leads were proactively recognizing people beyond their achievement and how it could impact trust, safety and overall job satisfaction and engagement? 

The larger a team gets, the harder it is to maintain the balance between authenticity and process here but if leadership is setting the example, it makes it a lot easier to mitigate the risk of a tool or system getting in the way of valuable recognition and appreciation.

I wonder what it would look like in the larger WordPress ecosystem if we proactively recognized others? If “leader is a role and leadership is a behaviour”, how could we model recognition in a way that was authentic and empowering to others in WordPress? What core values or key behaviours would we want to recognize within our community?

A calendar with today circled and previous days crossed out.

3. Equip Leaders and Team Members with a Recognition Toolbox

Recognition isn’t intuitive. Appreciation can be but as people have different languages of appreciation, lack of alignment can result in spent energy on both sides without any result. To overcome this, leaders can assist by providing their teams with a collection of recognition tools.

There are some organizational recognition tools that can be put in place such as bonuses or gift budgets. But we can also equip team leads with some additional organizational tools such as some title flexibility (giving leaders some jr/mid/sr distinctions to play with for example), training and certification opportunities. 

Additionally, there are some tools that anyone can use regardless of the size of their organization. We can celebrate achievements and behaviours internally like in an all-hands meeting or high-traffic slack channel. We can celebrate on social media or provide recommendations on LinkedIn. 

Hilton Hotels, for example, created a calendar with a no or low-cost recognition idea for each day of the year. By equipping their teams with tools for recognition, they create some stickiness that helps with overall retention and engagement.

I think one question we can ask each person on our team is how they like to receive recognition. By inviting them to tell us, we create safety and trust while opening a dialogue that will hopefully lead to some helpful insights.

Recognition can have a lasting impact.

When I was younger (like twenty years ago younger), I spent my summers on staff at summer camps. They didn’t have a lot of resources but one thing they were good at was motivating their staff to live out the values and behaviours of their culture.

One camp I worked at, Muskoka Woods, had SDSD awards. Every week you could nominate your fellow staff for an award around Safety, Detail, Sizzle and Development. We’d gather as a team before the next batch of guests would be arriving and we’d celebrate the stories of that week’s winners. They’d get something from the tuck shop and the cheers of their fellow staff. Almost twenty years later, I still know what SDSD means and what it represents in terms of the way to deliver a great camp experience.

Another camp I worked at used simple 3×5” index cards, a rope and some clothesline pegs to empower staff to write ‘encouragement cards’ to each other. The idea was to create a way for the staff to catch each other doing something awesome. It also gave people the opportunity to share notes with their summer crush. 😀

I have a box somewhere here at home with many of those notes from over the years. I don’t think I’ll ever give them up.

Recognition and appreciation are powerful tools in shaping the experience of your team and organization. I wonder what your team will remember about their experience working with you in twenty years? What do you want it to be?

If we expand it back out to the WordPress ecosystem, what might it look like if we were catching our community doing something right instead of just calling them out for doing something wrong?

It’s a future state I think could be really special.

Here are a few more resources I’ve found helpful: