by Ruth Pearce

As a team leader and coach, I leverage many of the tenets of positive psychology with teams and groups. But these ideas are not magic bullets. There is mess and challenge, confrontation and frustration. The temptation to overuse a tool or technique that appears to work is understandable, particularly during difficult times. However, taking a positive intervention and doing even more of it is not a recipe for instant and enduring success. “Some good, more better” is not a model that works.

I remember the first time I worked with a team to create a cohesive, strengths-based community of co-workers. We all took the VIA character strengths survey, and then reviewed our team profile and discussed ways to leverage strengths and trust and to depend on each other. We introduced a recognition program and regularly shared “best moment of the day” or “something I am grateful for” at meetings. These practices, applied sparingly, helped engage the team and build a sense of belonging and mutual respect.

But, as good as these tools are, there are some potential pitfalls. Take recognition. Lots of companies are implementing recognition and peer recognition programs. While these initiatives are laudable, they are not without their issues.

Staying with What Works
First of all, the form that recognition takes needs to be context sensitive. At one point, our team was so stressed that we had that “Monday morning feeling” every day. One morning, as a joke, the group started shaking hands, high-fiving, and fist bumping as we thanked each other for coming in that day. It raised a laugh, and the practice went on for a few weeks. The acknowledgement of the daily challenges of work and the sense of mutual support helped the team to bond and soldier on. But when life settled down and the daily schedule was less grueling, the practice naturally went away. It had no place anymore, and would have seemed silly had we forced it to continue.

In another organization, team members found public recognition uncomfortable. Cultural norms meant that public accolades were seen as self-aggrandizing and divisive. Team members liked having their work recognized, but did not want a public pat on the back. In this organization, we developed a system that allowed employees to express appreciation for colleagues via an online system that sent the recipient and their manager an e-mail acknowledging the contribution.

The Benefits of Specific Feedback
Recognizing extraordinary feats is valuable—appreciating when people band together to solve a thorny problem, put in significant extra effort, give up personal time to get stuff done, or do something generous for another person. Regular and appropriate recognition shows up in surveys as a key factor in employee engagement. But recognition needs to be specific and meaningful.

Think about it for a moment. If someone says to you, “Thank you. You’re the best!” it feels good for a moment, right? But you’re left not knowing how to repeat that sensation of being appreciated.

If, on the other hand, someone tells you, “Thank you, I really appreciate the way you support me when the going gets tough. Your calls and e-mails help me feel as though someone is in my corner.” That feels good, too, and you know how to recreate it.

Another drawback of non-specific recognition is the potential for team members to feel that there is an obligation to congratulate everyone for every act. If nothing special happened that day, that’s okay. The key is to be on the lookout for recognition-worthy endeavors and to encourage others to be on the lookout, too.

Having Too Much Fun
To take another example, having fun in the office has been shown to have beneficial effects on employees’ mood, health, and productivity. But constant joking and playing can become intrusive and disturb work patterns, creating frustration. What starts out as a well-intended way to generate more creativity and productivity can become a distraction. In fact, excessive office play can ultimately be divisive, as some people start to see themselves as the only ones doing the work, while the others are just being silly and wasting time.

Encouraging energy management, physical exercise, and time to relax is a wonderful way to take care of a team. But a little goes a long way.

Teams that play together tend to work well together. Organizations that have well thought-out recognition schemes tend to see greater loyalty and stronger teams. Strengths-based teams are more productive and more engaged. But, as in all things, balance is key, and these approaches need to be implemented thoughtfully and with understanding. As Confucius said, “To go too far is as bad as to fall short.”

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RuthPRuth Pearce is Business Unit Director of Conferences and Special Events at Wholebeing Institute, where she is currently working on the 2017 Embodied Positive Psychology Summit. She also runs ALLE LLC (A Lever Long Enough), a company specializing in building resilience and well-being in group settings. In her spare time, Ruth is working on a book, Positive Project Management: The Engaged Team.