I follow the Army Chief of Staff, General McConville, on Facebook, and every once in a while, a random video of him will pop up on my feed. One that struck me, in particular, was when he visited some soldiers in Germany and distributed several challenge coins to some of the youngest soldiers there.
If you aren’t familiar with the tradition of military coins, getting a coin from a general is a big deal. Getting a coin from the Chief of Staff of the Army, the highest-ranking member of the Army, is an even bigger deal. That small recognition has a huge impact on those troops. It’s a lesson that leaders everywhere can take back to their own workplace.
We’re Leading People – Let’s Treat Them Like It
I’ve been recognized by leaders before during my time in the military. There’s the standard award and farewell gift that leaders in the Army often receive when they’re leaving a unit. One event stands out to me, though — I received a hand-written note from my boss’s boss thanking me for my hard work. I hadn’t experienced that in my seven-year career.
I’ve seen the effects such little rewards can have when I’ve made an effort to do them myself. Showing up randomly to a work section and choosing a soldier (or better yet, having the supervisor choose a soldier) to be recognized for a stellar performance can have a lasting impact on employee productivity. More than that, though, we’re leading people, not robots. An automated order kiosk at McDonald’s doesn’t need a pat on the back when it gets its orders correct, but people do.
When I received that note from my boss, I wasn’t sure why. It didn’t get specific; it just thanked me for my hard work. While it felt good to be recognized, I couldn’t help but feel I needed a little more. Without specifics, how was I supposed to know what I had done well? How was I supposed to know where to focus my efforts in the future? I was left guessing.
The Challenge Coin – A Humble but Powerful Tradition
There are several legends about the origin of the military challenge coin tradition. Some stories point to an American pilot shot down over enemy lines in World War I who proved his identity to his French captors by showing them his unit’s challenge coin. Other stories trace its origins back to ancient Rome when soldiers who were outstanding in battle received an extra, specially-minted coin with their legion’s mark. No matter the start, the challenge coin has become an important way for organizations to show their appreciation for outstanding performance or significant contributions to the unit’s mission. The higher the rank of the person who gives you a coin, or the rarer the coin, the more prestigious a place it will hold in your collection.
Your organization might not have its own challenge coin, but the lesson these powerful little tokens provide translates to any industry. Creating a way to recognize your employees quickly, for specific instances of excellence, is as simple as making an incentive that’s both scarce and valuable. It doesn’t always have to tie back to monetary or time-off awards. A small, physical token of your appreciation is often enough to get the point across.
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The Power of Small Recognition
I’ve seen first-hand how much employees appreciate the recognition. On a day after I had taken a few minutes to reward two soldiers, their supervisor told me how much it meant to them to be recognized. It let me know I was heading in the right direction. That small reminder helped me realize that my actions mattered, and I should be more deliberate in recognizing good work.
Leaders can make a huge difference to their employees by recognizing them. A little bit of time, maybe a small token or even just a hand-written note thanking them for a job well done, could be the motivation they need to go the extra mile that week. We’re building trust with our team that their leaders see them as people who need appreciation rather than robots.
Feeling underappreciated is a common complaint — according to a study by Zippia, 29% of employees hadn’t been recognized in over a year. That makes it tough to come to work, and indeed, that same study found that 44% of employees leaving their job were doing so primarily because of a lack of recognition. A little recognition can make a significant difference in employee retention. That’s not the kind of place I want to work, and I’m pretty sure that goes for many other people.