Blog Post

HR Tips From the Oscars: Does "Good Job" Encourage Mediocrity?

Brenda Pohlman

Senior Recognition Strategist, Globoforce

If you were among the millions of movie fans around the world who tuned in to the Oscars this weekend, you may still be debating the merits of Boyhood vs. Birdman. But I was more interested in another film nominated for Best Picture: Whiplash, a movie about a relentlessly cruel bandleader and a young student musician who aspires to become one of the jazz greats. The movie poses lots of questions about how far people will go to achieve their dreams, and the motivations of others who support those dreams.

In one of his misguided motivational attempts, the bandleader (played by J.K. Simmons) declares to the student (played by Miles Teller), "The two most harmful words in the English language are ’good job.’" I envisioned talent management professionals in cinemas the world over gasping in reaction to the blasphemy. The leader claimed that if history’s jazz legends had frequently heard "good job" versus "not good enough," they likely wouldn’t have become legends at all.

After the shock in hearing the line, which goes against the very premise of the work I do every day, I considered the idea. There may be validity in it, but I suspect it’s only in rare situations involving exceptionally driven and exceptionally talented people in certain highly competitive pursuits – musical phenoms, world-class athletes, scientific masterminds and the like. For the rest of us, however, "good job" works wonders. The real power of workplace recognition is not in motivating the most elite levels of talent in the organization. It’s in mobilizing the mass majority – recognizing the vast middle tier that helps move the organization forward every day.

This line did leave me wondering, though, about the words we use to recognize others. While not the most harmful two words in the English language, maybe in the most literal sense "good job" isn’t really quite good enough at all.

Recognition should be impactful and memorable and leave the recipient with a positive connection between the words spoken or written and their own actions. Overused and vague phrases alone like "good job" or "thanks for everything" or "congrats on your success" with no substance don’t quite fit the bill. Here are five tips, which apply for both verbal and written recognition, that take the experience beyond shallow platitudes to meaningful, effective recognition moments:

1. In order to reinforce the action that you’re acknowledging, ensure recognition is timely by acknowledging the contribution soon after it’s made.

2. More than just a couple of words are required to show appreciation effectively. Be specific — go into some detail about how your colleague’s contribution made a difference.

3. Make recognition feel sincere by using the words "thank you" (maybe the two most beneficial words in the English language!).

4. Describe the personal characteristics that made this person’s action or achievement special.

5. The words you use, and anything that accompanies those words in the form of an award, should be aligned with the level of result achieved by the person you’re recognizing.

Check out this 2014 Globoforce blog post on 101 Effective Recognition Words for more tips on conveying recognition in impactful ways.

A version of this post originally appeared on RecognizeThis!.

Photo: Sony Pictures

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