Culture | December 13, 2011
the gumby effect: avoiding common appreciation snafus
Unfortunately, not all appreciation is created equal. The way in which a manager shows recognition has a great deal to do with the results. In researching our book The Orange Revolution, we heard one memorable case of good intentions that turned bad at American Express. “We had a bad recognition moment,” admits Robert Childs, senior vice president of human resources.
Childs said that through his 25 years supporting every line of business at American Express, the organization has always been a fan of appreciation. But he added that if it isn’t executed properly it can have a demoralizing effect.
Childs was referring to an idea tried years before to reward employees who learned a new system in the business travel arena. “The system improved the speed and quality of bookings,” he said “The whole theme around it was ‘flexibility.’ But we underestimated how much change management was necessary to become more flexible.”
New procedures were intensive and time-consuming; still, in traditional AmEx fashion, employees responded. And leaders wanted to appreciate their hard work with a reward. Great, right? It would be, except the chosen award was a Gumby doll. You know, since Gumby is flexible.
Childs cringed when he told us, “Employees were quite upset. They had to change the way they worked. They had worked overtime to learn the new system. And their primary comment back to management was, ‘You have to be kidding! A Gumby doll?’ Instead of thanking them for their hard work in a meaningful way, we thanked them with a cheap, green, plastic doll.”
While Gumby may have made a fun mascot for the project, it was hardly a fitting reward for this big an effort. “Before each new system change that followed, people would ask, ‘Am I going to get a Gumby for doing this?’ We created a negative tradition—an ongoing joke that ended up becoming a huge hurdle to overcome.”
Could AmEx turn the tables by appreciating properly?
“It works wonders if you do it right,” says Childs, and American Express has certainly implemented numerous positive experiences since learning from Gumby. “One great recognition practice was started by Ed Gilligan, our vice chair, when we were looking for more of a sales culture in Global Corporate Services.”
If reps exceeded their sales target in a sustainable fashion, and were among the top performers overall, they were recognized as part of the President’s Club. They would receive acknowledgement of the achievement on their business cards and letterhead, they would receive a symbolic award, and would be taken on a trip to a fabulous location.
But American Express took this appreciation to the next level by making it personal to each individual, and by making it social.
“We held a recognition event and had everyone attend,” says Childs. “This way, everyone got a chance to see who the performers were. First we read statements about the accomplishments of each individual—and how those accomplishments impacted the goals of the team. We’d say, ‘Mary Smith, from this region, has been with us so many years.’ We’d recite that person’s motto, and then we’d reveal how much she had achieved above target—10, 15 percent. But it’s not just about numbers, we personalized each moment by telling the story of a relevant win—how a very specific deal impacted the company.”
Very smart. American Express obviously knows how to publicly appreciate its people. First they introduced specific metrics to pursue. They then recognized individual performance. And finally they held a public ceremony to specifically cheer for the stellar performances. But what made the event truly memorable was bringing it home.
Says Childs, “Instead of just reading special comments about the person, we surprised them. We got video clips from family members and significant others. The family members talked about how proud they were of the person’s achievements and how they understood now the long hours they worked. Small children were saying, ‘I’m proud of you daddy.’ Employees were floored and emotional.”
The extra effort American Express took to say ‘thank you’ helped these high-achievers understand that the company was committed to them and valued them. The fact that AmEx was appreciating its people created an even stronger connection to the organization in everyone in attendance.
AmEx has since copied the recognition process in other areas of its business and is experiencing fantastic feedback and results. We’ve seen few places where employees feel such loyalty. We personally can’t count the number of people at AmEx who have told us they “bleed blue.”
To do appreciation right, take a look at the following five tips.
- Keep it positive: During an appreciation moment, mention only the positive—not the transformation.
- Make it immediate: The closer the appreciation to the actual performance the better. It shows that you notice and value what your people do.
- Keep it close: Thanks are best presented in a person’s natural environment among their peers (in their work location, not your office).
- Appreciate great work: Recognize only behaviors that reinforce key organizational values or goals.
- Share the experience: Include others. The most meaningful appreciation we see often comes from peers.