If you want to build a remote team that feels engaged and not just transactional, giving regular, intentional praise is essential.
‘In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.’
Those of you who are familiar with the book First, Break All the Rules will recognize the quote above. It is one of the twelve questions that Gallop Consulting claims can indicate positive employee engagement when answered affirmatively. Giving positive feedback is one of the early lessons of management that most of us learn, and yet it is also one of the common areas that managers struggle with.
There’s another way to look at feedback, and that is through the lens of the ideal ratio of positive to negative interactions, which ranges from 3:1 to 9:1 depending on the source. For example, The Gottman Institute has shown a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions in happy marriages. This theory is well-studied, whatever the exact number, and the underlying intuition is sound: you need to have many more positive interactions with someone than negative ones if you want to have a healthy, trusting relationship.
This positive to negative ratio may explain why so many managers struggle to give weekly praise and yet have otherwise effective relationships with their teams. If you have a friendly and fun working environment it’s not too hard to maintain this positive interaction ratio, and thus maintain your ability to have trust and provide occasional negative feedback without harming your working relationships. A friendly ‘good morning’ while getting coffee, a little bit of pre-meeting banter, a walk to grab lunch, or a shared laugh about current events serves as important positive lubricant for many teams.
Or it did, anyway. This all changed for many of us with the start of the global pandemic, and the move from in-person to remote work.
For people like myself, who were not in remote settings, remote work has caused a great shift in the ease of fun, informal interactions. Meetings have lost their easy before-and-after casual chatter, turning it into forced small talk where only one person can speak at once due to the limitations of video chat.
Text-based chat helps some, but unless you have a strong and established relationship with someone, sending them direct messages out of the blue can be intimidating. The frequent opportunities to get to know people, to have smaller positive interactions, have become new work obligations: planning social events, writing thoughtfully-crafted messages, or scheduling a lot more meetings to check in on people.
This work gets done at the cost of manager time and energy, and over the past two years, I believe it has fallen further and further off the priority list as the day-to-day busyness has taken precedence.
Is it any wonder, then, that trust has eroded in so many teams? The positive interaction banks are drained, to fill them requires planning and effort, and most of us are at our planning and effort limit these days.
For senior leaders, I have no easy solution to this conundrum to offer you. We are now in a position where we have to channel our inner Ted Lasso, the always-smiling cheerleader coach who radiates genuine optimism and positivity. Seek out chances to provide praise and recognition. Thank teams for going the extra mile during incidents, send kudos for new launches, and never miss a chance to highlight and celebrate accomplishments with a personal note to the people involved.
It’s now our job to craft small interactions to feed our positive balances, and to plan extra time for larger interactions like informal newsletters or casual team gatherings. There is no getting around the intentional effort that leaders need to make in order to successfully maintain trust with our teams and our colleagues.
There are some basic things all managers can do for their direct reports and immediate team that are even more important than ever. For one, make sure you are not skipping your 1:1s. These are the glue of your relationship with your direct reports. Take time in these 1:1s to talk about things other than work, to check in on them as people, and to share some of your own life. This is the kind of basic relationship-building work that you might have done through casual interactions in person, and it’s important not to let video meeting fatigue keep you from spending time on the person beyond work.
For the team, take time to celebrate accomplishments as a group. Examine the contents of your team meetings, and make sure you’re spending enough time on the positive, not just discussing problems and roadblocks.
As you come to the start of a new year, while you are thinking about your strategy and your end-of-year reviews and your future plans, reserve time and energy for all of these little social niceties. A downside of remote work is that you have to externalize a lot of acts that come cheaply in person. But if you want to create a team that feels engaged and not just transactional, this externalized and planned praise and positivity is a necessity. It’s an overdue tool to add to your management toolkit, and the practice will undoubtedly serve you well wherever your career and the world takes you next.