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What gets recognized gets repeated

I just finished watching my daughter’s youth basketball team participate in 5 games over the past weekend as part of a large, local tournament. It was a great opportunity for the girls to compete against teams outside of their regular league and it was a good test to see where they were at as a team. As is with any youth sports team, there are a lot of things that go into the makeup of the team dynamics. For this group, they had quite a mix of age ranges and skill levels. Additionally, throughout the year, a big challenge for our team has been to get them to work together as a unit – whether that is playing their positions properly or actually passing the ball to each other.

Much like my daughter’s basketball team, our work teams often face similar changes. Project teams or work units are put together and there usually is a cross-section of knowledge, skills, abilities and motivation of the employees involved on the team. The key with our work teams, much like my daughter’s basketball team, is for their manager/coach to be able to motivate and guide the team towards the greater goal –i.e. department success, project closure or winning the game!

BballHere is the big lesson learned from being in human resources, managing teams of my own and watching youth basketball – what gets recognized gets repeated. So for the managers out there, if you want your employees to repeat certain behaviours (i.e. teamwork, extra effort, honest, etc.) or repeat achieved levels of performance, you need to recognize what they have done and HOW they did it. You need to be tuned in to your team so that you can recognize the right behaviours and subsequent outcomes. If you are not tuned in, you will inadvertently recognize the wrong behaviours and they will then be repeated due to this recognition.

Case in point with my daughter’s basketball team: As mentioned before, there are a couple of players who displayed a great reluctance to pass the ball to other teammates at any cost. Throughout the year, the coaches had been trying to get these players to change their behavior and they tried to instill the importance of passing the ball. These players were very resistance to changing but did, on occasion, show signs of changing. The problem was that when they actually did make passes, there was no recognition for this change in behaviour. So, what incentive was there for the child to make a sustained change?

The real problem crept up in the tournament when these behaviours really came to the forefront again. The issue was that due to their individual overall skill level, these girls ended up having some success (i.e. made their shots/baskets). To further compound the problem, their behaviours were recognized as they were picked as game MVP’s for our team on multiple occasions. So, guess what happened in the subsequent games after that? You got it, they passed the ball less and less because they had been recognized (i.e. named MVP) when they weren’t passing; therefore they repeated (the negative behaviours) that they were recognized for. A further systemic issue that crept up was that their teammates resented the lack of team play, (i.e. not being passed to) but also resented the fact that they received recognized and reward for what they thought were negative behaviour. It was a vicious cycle that ultimately did not help the team as they lost all their games!

As you can now see, the parallels to our work environments are there. If, as managers, you recognize and reward people on your team for the wrong reasons, not only will the wrong behaviours get repeated, you will cause resentment and disengagement amongst your team. I have seen this most often where some depts. or teams have “performers” who consistently deliver; however, it is at the expense of their fellow employees. Meaning, they may achieve the desired performance outcomes, but it certainly isn’t in line with any type of organizational competencies, leadership behaviours or values. However, the manager is so happy that the work got done, regardless of the ‘cost’, that they recognize that employee – whether through public praise, rewards, bonus, etc. This further guarantees that the behaviours (negative) will be repeated again and again.

Going forward, as managers, we need to be clear with our employees about what is expected of them. The “how” is just as important as the “what.” As managers, we need to be cognizant of how work is being done and accomplished because if you are recognizing the wrong behaviours they will be repeated and in turn, you will create a bigger issue whereby you will experience overall team dis-functionality. For the coaches out there, remember to make sure you are recognizing the kids on your teams that give that extra effort, always hustle and try their best, regardless of their skill level at the time and regardless of their immediate/short term results. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of sippakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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