I received an email today from the Società Italiana Medicina e Nutrizione Evoluzionistica (The Italian Society for Evolutionary Medicine and Nutrition) asking me for an interview and sending along a well-researched list of questions specific to some of the work and writing I’ve been doing over recent years. My answers to these questions will be published in a magazine this Italian society prints. To get such a random email, from literally the other side of the world, and from a group who seem to know what I’ve been doing, left me feeling pretty stoked, hashtag: humble brag.
It was a small but welcome piece of recognition. It was the type of recognition which, when received, had the effect of bolstering my self-esteem, gave me a sense of achievement, and which motivates me to keep doing the things I do (in some way, shape, or form).
For a variety of personal and professional reasons, I’ve been thinking about the importance and power of recognition and having a sense of achievement more and more of late. I was saddened recently to hear from a dear friend that he felt a bit worthless and purposelessness in his life. His self-esteem and self-confidence had clearly been taking a battering of late. I was shocked by his admission because I know him to be very well liked, admired, and respected, by many people. Yet it would seem he was largely unaware of the regard in which he is held, in part, because very few people have taken the time to admire his excellent work, the contributions he makes, and praise him for what his does.
I too have had several incidences recently where, after sharing work and efforts I’ve been proud of, and getting almost no response, I’ve been left thinking what’s the point. As much as receiving random emails from overseas is nice, it’s never any replacement for the interest and acknowledgement you receive from those nearest and dearest to you.
If you ever feel inclined to unleash your google-fu on the term “recognition”, you’ll find yourself keyboard-deep in posts relating to the importance of giving recognition in the workplace. You’ll see statistics relating to how poorly done the giving of recognition is, comments on how not everyone takes their work home, but they’ll soon take home the negative feelings of being underappreciated, and you might even come across a list of things to do to improve the whole recognition situation. That so much is written on the subject serves only to prove a) how important recognition is to us human beings, and b) how badly we seem to be at giving recognition in our modern cultures and societies.
Achievement and recognition are central pillars to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and are important fuel sources for our self-esteem and for recharging our positive emotional energy. But I remember a time in my career history (not that long ago in the grand scheme of things) where any need for external recognition was seen as sign of emotional immaturity or neediness, or was used by management as a tool for manipulating staff. Thankfully those days, in many medium to large professional organisations in New Zealand at least, seem to be a thing of the past.
Why is recognition such an important aspect of our overall psychological well-being?
Put simply, it’s about social cohesion. In our modern Cult of Individuality world, we keep forgetting that we are social creatures first and foremost. We naturally form small bands, tribes, and other socially cohesive units (organisations and businesses, anyone?) based around common identifiers, be they relatedness (family), attraction, or shared goals, values, and beliefs. To keep the group tightly knit and looking out for each other, we have evolved many ways to increase our sense of loyalty, belonging, and connection to our group, including receiving recognition for tasks we’ve performed and attributes and skills we hold or have developed to aid the group. For a great explanation of the biology behind this, I highly recommend watching this video from Simon Sinek on why “leaders eat last”.
To understand the effects of this system breaking down, and what it does to your personal feelings of belonging, connection, and cohesion with a group, one only needs to think about every time they’ve done something, be it for a partner, family, friends, place of employment, or a customer. Over time, and best case scenario, this lack of recognition and appreciation drives you off in search of a new band/tribe/family/relationship/employer etc. Worst case (and often the most common) scenario, you stay put, change nothing, become very negative, bitter, disconnected and socially isolated, with your self-esteem, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and many other “self-s” all suffering.
“The rule of esteem recognises that all humans need and want praise, recognition, and acceptance. Acceptance and praise are two of our deepest cravings; we can never get enough. William James once said, “The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” You can give simple praise to a child and watch them soar to the top of the world. We know how a simple thank you can make our day. Human beings have a psychological need to be respected and accepted. We need affection to satisfy the need to belong, we want praise so we can feel admired, and we want recognition to satisfy our need for personal worth.”
Because we are social creatures, our negative energy is just as socially contagious as our positive energy. In fact, because we are largely wired up to be risk-averse and biased toward pessimism, negative energy is perhaps more contagious than positive energy (believing there is danger in the forest when there isn’t has a stronger natural selection than being optimistic there isn’t danger in the forest when there actually is). This is why having only one or two negative individuals in an organisation can quickly make for a toxic culture and bring down whole teams.
What many of us could do with giving and receiving much more of are the much more personal and genuine forms of recognition that reinforce our social bonds with a physically proximate person or small group of people (no – social media “likes” don’t count). These are the more spontaneous, more immediate forms of recognition and praise we give to and receive from each other. Spontaneity and immediacy are key here, particularly in workplace settings. Giving recognition for a job well done six months after the fact likely means the ship has sailed for the person receiving the recognition. Six months is a long time to be feeling underappreciated. Recognition given on socially-mandated days (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day), especially when associated with the usual gifts and stock cards, is far less impactful than the more spontaneous things we can do for people on a daily basis.
Recognition can come in the form of words of affirmation, such as a a simple “thank you”, or “hey, great job”. It could be spending some quality time with someone, taking them for a walk, a random coffee and chat, out for dinner, or to see a game or a movie together. It could be a small gift given – some flowers you picked, or something you baked at home (pro tip: the less expensive the gift, but the more physical effort you put in, the better – think a handwritten letter and chocolate versus something more expensive and lavish, yet more impersonal). In more intimate relationships, some form of physical touch, such as a hug might be a strong signal that you appreciate someone. In more formal settings, such as the workplace, a pat on the back, fist-bump, or a shake of a hand might suffice.
“A powerful ritual that fuels positive emotions is expressing appreciation to others, a practice that seems to be as beneficial to the giver as to the receiver. It can take the form of a handwritten note, an e-mail, a call, or a conversation—and the more detailed and specific, the higher the impact.”
No matter the situation, whether it be a couple, or a large organisation, it all comes down to relationships. If you want to strengthen the bonds of those relationships, whether your goal is to increase the closeness of an intimate relationship or friendship, or increase the energy and productivity of your workforce, taking the time to acknowledge someone’s presence, work, and achievements, big or small, can often go much further in lifting spirits and esteem than many of the other strategies people and organisations try to enact.
Postscript: Watch the short video below to see the power of both giving and receiving recognition (warning: this video will hit you hard in the feels). The primary form of recognition here is in the form of words of affirmation. But note too, how being proximate to someone, looking them in the eye, and being open and vulnerable, and expressing gratitude for the impact someone had had on others, spontaneously leads to physical touch.
All of the above terms in bold are the key buzzwords bandied around on social media by apparent influencers, yet they can really only take place between people who are in physical proximity to each other, in the absence of phones, computers, and other digital devices. Being “open and vulnerable” or “thankful” in an Instagram post, for example (where you don’t know most of your followers, certainly can’t see them, know the likely positive responses you will get, and can filter the negative), is not the same as sitting in front of someone you know and sharing the same information. In the absence of doing this stuff in real life, such posts aren’t much more than virtue signalling.