Recognizing Vulnerability in Recognition

In October 2019, 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg turned down the Environment Prize and cash award from the Nordic Council, an official body responsible for collaborations between 8 nordic governing bodies. Here’s what she wrote on Instagram:

“The Nordic countries have a great reputation around the world when it comes to climate and environmental issues,” she said. “But when it comes to our actual emissions and our ecological footprints per capita — if we include our consumption, our imports as well as aviation and shipping — then it’s a whole other story.”

Ouch. Those with authority and power made themselves vulnerable by attempting to give a pat on the head to Thunberg. Their assumption was that their values were aligned with Thunberg, and that she would be honored by the prize. In only a couple of short lines she manages to undercut the sincerity, moral authority and effectiveness of the council and the government officials it represents. It’s ironic, isn’t it? 

We all make ourselves vulnerable when we step forward to recognize another. Sometimes, like in Thunberg’s case, it all goes wrong for the giver, but other times, when all goes as planned, these moments strengthen bonds and clarify shared values.  Let’s take a look at why that is, and how leaders can use recognition to build strong, effective teams.

At its simplest, recognition is identifying and celebrating particular behaviors.

We all recognize the behaviors of others every day. Whether it’s a “like” of someone’s post highlighting a new outfit, hairstyle, car, or gadget, a thank you note to a family member, or feedback at work, when we identify and celebrate the behavior of another we’ve engaged in recognition. Recognition is built into culture. Graduations celebrate the work that students invested into achieving the milestone. Holidays identify and celebrate the behaviors of veterans, historical figures, the workforce, and others. Sport championships recognize individual and team achievements. Even the return of a quick smile and “good morning” in response to a stranger recognizes and reinforces socially positive behaviors.

Social groups, whether a family or an entire culture, reinforce shared values through the practice of recognition. Our social experience is rich with these moments, small and large, and we depend on them to clarify the behaviors that will maintain our social status and safety.

Let’s break down the specific roles at play in recognition moments.

It starts with the giver. A recognition event provides an understanding of the closely-held values of the giver. By choosing to identify and celebrate certain behaviors, the recognizer opens up and becomes vulnerable. They communicate, “this is the behavior I like; what I’ve seen you doing aligns with my values.” In return, the act of receiving recognition is an agreement by the recipient that the identified behaviors are good and worthy of recognition. Recommendation moments bond the giver and receiver in agreement on what is good and valuable. Even observers have a part to play. Observers further reinforce the value of certain behaviors by clapping, giving congratulations, or other roles. Their witness to the recognition moment validates the underlying values shared by all three roles. 

The social power of givers, receivers, and observers is illustrated in another recognition story, this one during the Cold War. In 1964, the writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte was awarded, and then turned down, the Nobel Prize in Literature. He published an explanation for his refusal that included not wanting to be “transformed” by the award, and not wanting to take sides in an East vs. West cultural struggle by accepting an award from a Western cultural institution.

While most Nobel Prize recipients count the award as the defining recognition of their lives, Sarte’s refusal communicated a lack of respect for the individuals and organization giving the award and signaled the values underlying the recognized behaviors were not held by the would-be recipient. In extending the award, the Nobel committee not only made themselves vulnerable to Sarte, but opened up all previous Nobel Prize recipients to critique. Saying he didn’t want to be changed by the award subverts the social, cultural, and political power of previous recipients, questioning their intellectual and artistic purity. By labeling the Nobel committee as a player in the culture wars of the time, Sarte diminished their moral authority and social power.

How do you think the papers responded? These recognition observers were given an opportunity to take sides and critique both the Nobel committee and Sarte. Recognition is a relationship and power-dynamic defining experience.

There’s enormous power in recognition moments that strengthen the social bonds between giver, receiver, and observers. Leaders can build these bonds if they commit to meaningful recognition moments that celebrate shared values, are timely, specific, and given in a manner the recipient prefers (one on one, publicly, via writing, ect.), and are accurately informed by real recipient behaviors. For more information on how to build meaningful recognition programs inside your organization, check out these resources and reach out for help. We love the outcomes of recognition at it’s best, and love designing effective programs with high returns. 

Recognition Best Practices Webcast

Measuring the ROI of Recognition Webcast

To dig deeper into the science of recognition, I highly recommend Honours versus Money, by Bruno Frey and Jana Gallus. See chapter 7, Honours as Signals, for more insights on how recognition builds social bonds.