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Recognizing and Reinforcing Change Progress

Jul 24, 2022

Written by Roxanne Brown

When you're leading your team to change you may wonder: How do I recognize and reinforce the progress people are making toward the change I have in mind?

Meaningful recognition demonstrates that you understand and respect the unique capabilities and contributions a person on your team has made. When it comes to recognition:

  • People want to be seen for their unique value and what they value in themselves
  • People want their ideas and opinions to be heard and respected
  • People want to feel like they’re making progress; like they are on the right track
  • People want to understand the value they bring to their team by hearing from their colleagues
  • People want to be treated with respect as they learn, make mistakes, adjust and ultimately reach the shift their company is asking them to make

On the flip side:

  • People may appreciate some amount of superficial recognition, but, if they perceive a pattern over time that that is all they’re getting, the appreciation will lose its positive impact
  • People will evaluate how well their colleagues and leaders understand their contribution based on what is recognized; often they're impressed or unimpressed depending on how well the recognizer communicates they understood the contribution and people are rarely neutral about this
  • People lose their motivation if they feel disrespected by the quality of the recognition, including the content, timing, amount of passion expressed, and their perception of how authentic the recognizer is

With all of this in mind, it’s easy to get it wrong. Leaders and colleagues are often surprised by the negative reaction they receive from the people they attempt to recognize, even though their intentions are good. Because all of this is true, leaders and colleagues sometimes refrain from recognizing people at all, which mitigates one risk but eventually results in others.

Recognizing Change Progress the Right Way

So how do you do this well, especially during change? A good way to think about this is by looking at why it’s not unusual for people to have an initial negative reaction to an announced change:

  • Previous changes have gone poorly
  • Changes have been announced in the past but didn’t happened
  • Changes with promises of big outcomes were made but fell short of expectations
  • People feel like the impact to them and to others is not understood; they don’t know how to make that clear or what they’re empowered to do about it
  • People are annoyed because rather than optimizing their work, they now have to think about how they do their work
  • People feel like beginners, rather than the accomplished professionals they’ve worked to become

Any one of these ideas can be thoughtfully applied to recognize people during change:

  • If previous changes have gone poorly, recognize people for what they’ve done or are doing that's making it go well this time.
  • If previously announced changes ended up not happening, recognize people for their focus, their problem-solving skills, and their attendance to setbacks that are contributing to making the change happen this time.
  • If previous changes with big promises were made but fell short of expectations, recognize people for raising their concerns and recommendations so that expectations are met; or recognize people for providing insights into how to communicate the expectations well so that people are not disappointed; or recognize people for their tenancy to make sure the big promises are achieved.
  • If people feel like the impact to them is not understood, don’t know how to make that clear, and don’t know what they are empowered to do about it, recognize people for bringing the impact insights to light; or recognize people for giving voice to stakeholder concerns and recommendations for overcoming obstacles; or recognize people for making the change experience great for their stakeholders.
  • If people are annoyed because, instead of optimizing their work, they have to think about how to do it, recognize people for the work they did to shift the way they operate; or recognize them for seeing the other optimization opportunities that the change could facilitate.
  • If, with this change, people feel like beginners, rather than the accomplished professionals they’ve worked hard to become, recognize people for how their skills and experiences contributed to making the change happen; or recognize how their new skills and experiences they’ve developed with the change increases their capabilities as accomplished professionals.

Not every situation will apply, but these ideas can get you thinking about what would make sense to people about how they would appreciate being recognized.

Looking at Change Metrics

You can use the change metrics you’re monitoring to see the potential opportunities to recognize people.

  • What are the signs people are making progress toward the change you have in mind?
  • What early benefits are you seeing and how has the behavior of the people helped your organization realize those benefits?
  • What would be encouraging for people to hear from their leaders now?
  • What would help people see that they are on the right track and are making progress?

Making this a regular focus helps you and others see what kind of reinforcement would be encouraging and show the organization you’re paying attention. This reinforcement communicates to people that this change is important and still a priority.

How to Recognize Progress

In terms of how to reinforce change progress, here are a few ideas:

  • Recognize people publicly and in your one-on-one meetings. Use public forums, such as team meetings and group messaging channels, to share change stories, outcomes, and how people have helped the organization make progress toward the change. In one-on-one meetings, start the conversation by appreciating the work the person has done to transition to the new way of doing things and ask them questions about what they did, how, why, and what help they and others need to keep going.
  • To make sure you know what to recognize, ask your team to help you see the valuable contribution of others. Share some of the signs you’re looking for and ask them what other signs are indicators of progress. Ask your team for recommendations for the approach you could take so that people feel genuinely appreciated. Your team can help you tune in.
  • From time to time, run a peer recognition campaign. Send a short survey out to ask people to recognize their peers for the great work they’ve done to help the organization transition to a new way of operating. Ask them to be as specific as possible so that the person they’re recognizing would understand what they’re being appreciated for and how that helped the team. Once you’ve collected the responses, send the appreciation individually to each person recognized and their manager with a heading like, “You’ve been recognized!” Refer to these recognitions in team meetings and in one-on-one conversations.
  • If you have more than one level of management hierarchy, use our Executive Reverse Q&A technique to help connect the executives to the work people are doing. Here's how it works: In a team meeting, instead of having an executive be a guest speaker, invite one or several executives to attend and give them questions they can ask the team. The questions should be centered around the significant accomplishments the team has made and are proud of. “Hey Jenn, I heard the team took an innovative approach to solve the sequencing problem. Could you share more about what the team did and how that’s helped us make the progress on the change we’re all working on?” This communicates to the team that the executives are at least somewhat informed about their work and is an opportunity for the team to give the executives more background and highlights about it. This kind of interaction can reduce the hierarchical barriers to authentic conversations between the team and leaders and encourage future conversations.

These are just a few thoughts to get you started.

When change is happening, people want to know they’re on the right track and want to know you’re paying attention. Otherwise, they will assume the change is not as important as the other priorities they’re working on. Using these recognition techniques and being thoughtful about what you recognize will help people understand what’s most important to focus on. Applying a philosophy of reinforcement as part of your change approach will encourage people to make progress toward the outcomes you’re looking for.