Time to Get SAPI

In honor of Employee Recognition Day, give some consideration to how you recognize the people you work with. Whether you’re master and commander of thousands or an individual contributor on a team of 3 people, you can improve your workplace culture by recognizing people for their effort and good work.  

The statistics surrounding how 30% of all employees are disengaged are ubiquitous, albeit slightly dramatic. Numbers aside, it’s time to focus on HOW you recognize your coworkers. The best practice on recognition is to incorporate the 4 pillars of high-quality recognition, found in the mnemonic SAPI.

S = Specific. A = Authentic. P = Personal. I = Immediate.

Sure, SAPI sounds like “sappy” and may not have a great connotation. But it’s vivid. And because it’s vivid, you’ll remember it. So, here’s a spin through what makes SAPI so meaningful.

S is for Specific

Being specific in your recognition makes the recipient feel like you actually noticed them. It’s the difference between writing “You did a nice job with the presentation,” and “The way you laid out the narrative in the presentation made it really compelling.” Or, “You and the team worked hard,” vs. “All the effort you put into the presentation really paid off with how great the slides looked and how persuasively the content flowed.”  

Being specific goes a long way in making the recognition count. The behavioral science behind specificity starts with DNA. Our DNA is hundreds of thousands of years old and built into it is a bias toward being accepted. Acceptance is rooted in tribal people living in small communities millennia ago who relied on each other for support when someone was incapacitated. Whether you like it or not, your team, your department, your division, your company … they are all tribes, or in modern vernacular, communities. Belonging to a tribe and feeling like tribe members recognize you, specifically, is vitally important to our wellbeing. 

A specific recognition signals that the giver of the recognition sees the contribution we’re making and that puts us at ease. Being recognized is critical to a greater sense of belonging, which contributes to higher performing teams. Don’t miss the chance to be specific.

A IS for Authentic

We can spot inauthenticity from a mile away, in part because it helped keep our ancestors alive when bad dudes approached our group. We prefer people be open, candid, respectful…all of those things that can be hailed under the moniker of authentic.

When you’re writing recognitions or recognizing someone in person or in front of a group, be authentic. If you’ve got a sense of humor, use it – that is if your recipient will get it. If you don’t have a good sense of humor, play to your strengths. Use your voice, your tone and your observations. If you’re not the kind of person who is lavish with your words, don’t try too hard. Be yourself. It’s important for the recipient to get an authentic message to ensure a positive reaction.

We can tell if someone is smiling or fake smiling in a photograph. We can “see through” people when they are not being authentic. Make sure you lead with an authentic message. The negative consequences of inauthentic messaging can undermine your team’s effectiveness. The positive consequences can help your team achieve great things.

Also, it’s best to recognize people when you personally observe great performance. It’s weird if you recognize a co-worker for doing a good job at something that you didn’t witness directly, but write it as if you did. If you weren’t there, tell them that you heard about their great performance from someone who witnessed it. Don’t make it sound like you were there when you weren’t.

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From a behavioral perspective, healthy workgroups and teams start with a sense of belonging and recognition is a stepping stone on the path to get there. Going back into our tribal selves, humans are at our best when we’re working with others we trust. If we don’t trust other’s intentions, or see someone as being authentic in their communication, we reveal less of our true selves and stifle productivity.

P is for Personal

Being personal is about addressing the recipient in a personally meaningful way for them. It’s really not about you. Focus on what you know about the person you’re writing about: their personality, their workload, their path to get to where they are today, what they value, the context they work in so that you can tailor the message (and the medium) for the recipient in a personal way.  

Is the recipient an extrovert or an introvert? An extrovert might benefit from acknowledgement at a group gathering, like a team meeting and the introvert may prefer a note left on their desk. Does the recipient get recognized regularly or is this a rarity? Frequently-recognized people require even greater personalization because the “good job, Sheena!” message is worn out.

Find the best context to frame your recognition. You might consider a hand-written note or an appropriately silly gift that works for the recipient. Best-practice recognitions stands out in the mind of the recipient and standing out is all about context.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini, PhD refers to “similarity” as a way of being personal in recognition. This is the tendency we have to like others who are like us. When you write or deliver a recognition to someone that really lets them know that you know who they are, they feel that you are more like them. That acknowledgement is manifest in comments like, “My boss really gets me,” and, “I was surprised how well my boss understands what I’m doing.”  

 Another aspect of making it personal for the recipient is the spotlight effect. Most of us tend to overestimate the amount that other people notice our behavior. And the reverse is also true: we tend to dismiss someone paying only a modest amount of attention to us. Feeling like our good work is being noticed is rare, so a personalized recognition draws the recipient closer to the person who noticed us. It confirms our desire to be in the spotlight.

When a recipient is recognized in a way that personally connects to them, they are less likely to dismiss future requests for their time and talent, and more likely to reciprocate with good will.  

I is for Immediate

That means now!

Letting someone know that you loved their use of graphics on the presentation they gave 3 months ago is a buzz kill (unless you’re repeating what you told them on the day they first gave the presentation). Go to the recognition platform immediately after the meeting and write the recognition while it’s fresh for both you and the recipient. If you’re busy, block out time on your calendar each week to write recognitions.

Don’t wait longer than one week. It’s bad form. It’s important to not let too much time pass between recognition. Employees who report to you should be recognized about once per month. If they’re not doing work that deserves recognition with that regularity, then you might want to ask what circumstances are keeping that from happening.

...corporate work environments mimic the tribes that our ancestors lived in thousands of years ago.

While recognizing too infrequently can be trouble, so can too much frequency be problematic. Recognizing a coworker every single week for the same thing can start to feel stale for the writer as well as the receiver. Remember the need to make it authentic.

From a behavioral point of view, the key behind immediacy is called temporal construal or temporal discounting. Both of these terms relate to how we value things that happen in the present or near term more than we value things in the long term. Studies show that people who are offered $10 now or $15 in a month will usually take the $10 now, even though they’d make 50% more by waiting a few weeks.

The same is true with recognition. It will be valued more in the present than at some point in the future so make sure you are immediate when it comes to delivering your recognition.

Are you SAPI?

What are you going to do today to make your recognition more SAPI? Are you leading with your examples? Are you identifying situations to recognize your coworkers? Are the coworkers who are receiving your recognition being impacted in positive ways? Are you keeping an eye out for team members recognizing each other and how the team changes after they start recognizing each other?

Our tribal selves can’t be separated from our modern, corporate selves. And corporate work environments mimic the tribes that our ancestors lived in thousands of years ago. There are hierarchies. There are leaders and there are followers. There are opportunists. There are slackers and hard workers. And there is always a job to be done. One part of your job is to call out good work and good effort with good recognition.

So go ahead. You can do it. Just make sure that when you recognize someone, make it SAPI.

About the Author

Tim Houlihan is the founder and chief behavioral strategist of BehaviorAlchemy, LLC, a consultancy using a behavioral lens for improving the actions of workers, customers and policy makers. He co-founded Behavioral Grooves, a meetup and podcast with listeners in more than 80 countries. Previously, Tim was Vice President of Reward Systems at BI WORLDWIDE where he was responsible for a $300 million global portfolio of reward systems, acted as the firm’s thought leader in behavioral sciences and was the chief liaison to research partners around the world. Tim believes people underestimate the role of the unconscious in our behaviors. The application of good behavioral science can remedy that.