Motivation

How To Reduce Uncertainty in Teams

Gerrard Lipscombe
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But for now, especially in these times where people must communicate effectively to keep up remote operations, let’s look at why it’s useful to think of recognition (in teams) as a social mechanism serving one primary function: to reduce uncertainty.

Recognition as Mechanism

Imagine yourself at a party, looking across the room at a vaguely familiar face you can’t quite place. The initial feeling of familiarity and your subsequent attempts to put a name to the face can be understood through George Mandler’s dual process theory of recognition memory. For our nameless friend at the party, this comes as 1) a separate experience of familiarity (automatic) and 2) a more deliberate search of memory — recollection — for a name or identity to fit the face in view (conscious).

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Along with recognition as ‘familiarity’, we also speak of recognizing great works of art or heroic military efforts with awards and ceremony. We may similarly feel that our own efforts are not being fairly recognized — whether that’s in the workplace or at home (say, not getting due recognition for ‘always cleaning up’).

Distinct as they may be, each use of ‘recognition’ can be felt as a series of processes for simply approaching mutual understanding — to achieve a shared picture of the world. In case (1), we see ‘processes for finding the right name for that face’; and in case (2) ‘processes for finding an appropriate label/award/judgement for that work/effort/behavior’. In fact, that’s the primary piece I’d like to stress here:

Recognition is a way for people to create shared understanding and relieve uncertainty in the process.

This desire for a shared picture of reality turns out to be a non-trivial goal. People working on the same project, trained in the same discipline and with access to the same data can arrive at very different conclusions. Two doctors may prescribe different courses of action for the same patient presenting the same symptoms. Two competent critics may leave the cinema with different opinions about the film in subject. And two managers may judge different value in the work of the very same employee, team or department.

These discrepancies aren’t the exception to the rule; rather, we have come to expect that people do not see precisely the same thing. The more complex the work or situation, the more this holds true — we already understand this intuitively. When we hand over something important to a manager, client or co-worker; when we publish something new for an audience; when we purchase a gift for someone we care about — we tend to hold our breath (metaphorically, though perhaps literally, too).

Even if we know to our core that we have done our best work, that we’ve fulfilled the project brief or done everything that was requested of us, there is still a period of suspended confirmation. We must wait to have our picture of reality confirmed by another.

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Recognition is the mechanism by which we unsuspend confirmation, and finally relieve individuals of that toxic, powerless form of uncertainty. The nature of this recognition isn’t necessarily positive or negative. Critical feedback which confirms an apprehension (‘She’s not going to approve this’) unsuspends confirmation in the precisely the same way as positive feedback (‘I hope he sees how much effort went into this’).

That is to say the value of the mechanism is not about encouragement or positivity, it is about relieving uncertainty.

Of course, this mechanism can only work when all parties trust that the feedback given is candid and an accurate representation of the judgement made internally. (‘Does she really mean that or is she just being nice?’)

Abstracting this mechanism to a place where we can identify its sub-processes is where it may become most useful — for guiding your own recognition processes in teams and interactions where ‘getting to an accurate shared picture of reality’ is vital. As teams increasingly begin their migration to remote working situations, moving onto the next task confident that everyone is one the same page may be more important than ever.

The Mechanism

In the context of teams — any group of individuals collaborating and cooperating toward some common goal — we can abstract the mechanism of ‘recognition’ to include three sequential steps:

  1. Stimulus;
  2. Search & Categorization;
  3. Expressed Judgement (Feedback).

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A successful recognition broken down.

Three Terms Before Starting: Subjects, Judges & Objects

The recognition mechanism we’re talking about has to do with processes in teams. They don’t exist in isolation — as such, there are some necessary minimum components.

Subjects: The individuals or team responsible for creating the ‘object of recognition’. Subjects are the people who make things — not the things themselves.

Judges: Recognition requires another mind (or information processing system) to categorize the objects created; and also to express a judgement. In the workplace, judges could be managers or co-workers — so long as their shared understanding of what has been created is relevant to achieving the shared goal (a judge may, for example, decide whether or not to continue funding the project).

Objects: The things which subjects ‘create’. This can be a website, a marketing campaign, an idea or a behavior.

1. Stimulus

The first stage in the recognition mechanism is the stimulus stage. This is where the work is passed along to the judge (a co-worker, client or manager) for viewing. Of course, before the Stimulus stage is the ‘making of the work’ itself, but this ‘hand-off point’ is where the recognition mechanism really begins.

Not only are subjects responsible for completing the work as well as they can — but for a successful recognition to occur, they must present the work in a way that is most accessible. If there is a hidden meaning within the work; if there are additional relevant documents; if a presentation is necessary to communicate the value of the work: it is in the ‘stimulus’ stage that subjects need to ensure this value becomes visible to the judge. If information is hidden at the stimulus stage, it’s unlikely any judge can make an accurate judgement.

2. Search & Categorization

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Search

The search is the initial processing of a judge. Like your brain searching memory for a name to put to the face at the party, the judge’s brain similarly searches itself for relevant information about the work they are seeing. The initial search is typically triggered automatically, giving unsolicited ‘first impressions’ — processes most simply likened to Danny Kahneman’s System 1 description — which lead to internal reactions like, ‘I don’t like the colors’ or ‘It makes me feel uplifted’ or ‘I wasn’t expecting this’.

Things can often go wrong in this automatic segment of the search phase when the judge doesn’t have the experience, trained skills or knowledge needed to ‘draw from’. Further, if the judge didn’t give the original request/brief, then it can be especially difficult to ‘focus on relevant factors in their search’.

Categorization

The categorization stage is slower — primarily a process of System 2 thinking. It is a deeper interconnecting of project elements with the bigger picture — the client’s needs, the organization’s reputation, the subject’s past work and comparisons — to arrive at what might be considered the ‘appropriate categories’ for the work. It also represents the true judgement made by the judge.

‘This is excellent work, especially considering our client expectations, previous work in this style and the time taken to complete it’.

‘This is a disappointing result. We had plenty of time to complete it, but we have missed all the main points.’

How this internal judgement is expressed is the final stage of recognition.

3. Expressed Judgement

Candid feedback is critical, but we are social creatures aware of how our communication influences others. Most of us don’t like giving negative feedback. Most of us are also capable of being distracted by personal elements of a project and judging with too narrow a frame.

However, perhaps the biggest breakdown in the recognition mechanism is far simpler than the complexity of balancing honesty with social grace: most judgements are simply never expressed at all.

Work gets done, passed on to whoever needed it, and the subject never hears another word about it. Not a ‘good job’, not a ‘thanks, that’s great’, not even an ‘I was hoping it would be different, but no matter’. And while some tasks may feel so small as to not warrant a ‘judgement’, even these minor acts of silence can build up to create an environment of hesitant uncertainty. As the judge, it’s easy to feel that ‘if I give no feedback, that means I’m satisfied’, but this is far from obvious to people who have spent time creating something new. Even a thumbs up message can be enough to clear residual uncertainty and unsuspend confirmation, but the key is that some judgement is expressed.

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Tracking Recognition

Creative workers report some of the highest levels of ‘feeling their work is undervalued’, but this mechanism applies more broadly than creative industries. Tracking how the recognition mechanism is functioning in your team can be an excellent first step.

Some useful Recognition questions that can be asked on a Likert Scale (i.e ‘Strongly Disagree — Strongly Agree’)

  • “I sometimes feel that I didn’t present my work as well as I could have, and this affected how it was interpreted.” [Stimulus]
  • “I’m confident my co-worker/creative director/judge has the information they need to make an accurate critique/judgement” [Search & Categorization];
  • “I always receive honest feedback from the relevant sources and feel I know the ‘true standing’ of my work”[Expressed Judgement];
  • “I often don’t know what went wrong on a project/I often don’t know how to improve or deliver as expected” [Unknown Breakdown].

Takeaway

Recognition is just one of the many mechanisms we’ve developed for helping teams organize around a common goal, check in with reality and deliver on what’s expected. Breaking down the mechanism into chunks may feel like an esoteric exercise — but sometimes simply having a visual image of how the chain connects can help you better diagnose communication problems and focus energies on more effective solutions.

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