Perspectives on Recognition: Motivating Positive Outcomes

by Sam Waltemeyer

Throughout my career, I have attempted to uncover the secrets to influencing behavior on both individual and group levels. At its most basic level, we know that to influence behavior, we must discourage the behaviors we don’t want to see replicated, and we must incentivize the behaviors we want to see repeated. By focusing on the latter, we create a pattern of positive behavior. Furthermore, I look to the work of Dr. David Yeager, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, for insights into promoting a growth mindset among youth. He asserts that young adults and teens are motivated by status and respect.

The question that I have grappled with is how to use the concepts of penalizing, rewarding, status, and respect to create a toolbox for behavior change and motivation.

I have 12 years of experience working as a fraternity/sorority professional on campus. As part of those jobs, I was responsible for correcting and punishing wrong behavior. However, while playing accountability whack-a-mole by constantly penalizing chapters for late forms, poorly thought-out event themes, and unapproved dunk tanks, I realized I needed to take advantage of the opportunity to praise and celebrate the small things. Examples include recognizing those chapters and leaders who were the first to submit a required form, reposting an event that was well done, or even creating a press release about a pre-approved dunk tank, even if it didn’t raise a lot of money for charity.

By celebrating as many accomplishments as possible, I found that I was able to foster favorable peer comparison, prioritizing motivation through the concepts of status and respect. This was so effective that I incorporated it into job descriptions for the staff I supervised at two different universities at which I worked. I also discovered that stakeholders, such as upper-level campus leadership, fraternity/sorority headquarters, and volunteers, were thrilled to receive positive news. As these stakeholders learned about the good news, they also added their support, thereby increasing chapter leaders’ sense of status and respect.

As a side note, it’s no secret that advisors, volunteers, and headquarters staff are rarely contacted about positive events happening with their chapters. If you’re a campus-based professional and want to make someone’s day, increase advisor retention, and make a friend at headquarters, send a note about something positive the chapter has done recently. We eat it up.

As I transitioned into the role of Executive Director at Phi Mu Delta, I developed a similar strategy. I make it a priority to recognize our members’ achievements weekly through both formal and informal means. This could be a press release about winning a campus award or a shoutout in our weekly newsletters to officers and advisors. The primary goal is to celebrate the everyday leaders in our chapters and uplift them in their accomplishments.

Phi Mu Delta fraternity employs two strategies for recognizing its members – fast targeted recognition, as stated before, and a capstone recognition process through our national awards. While the former appeals to the desire for individual recognition, the latter appeals to the desire for chapter status and excellence.

Although Phi Mu Delta is often seen as a light-hearted and quirky fraternity, the members take their mission, vision, and values very seriously. To achieve this, qualified chapters that excel each year can present their case to the members at our Conclave or Leadership Academy on why they should be the Chapter of the Year.

The selected chapters are challenged to share how they implemented our values of Brotherhood, Service, and Democracy alongside chapter operations. The attendees score the presentations based on a rubric for each value and category. This is designed to ensure that the scoring is based solely on the content and not influenced by other factors like the presenter’s attire, humor, or slide deck design.

Our fraternity has learned intentional and unintentional outcomes from hosting our chapter awards this way:

  1. It makes our chapter leaders focus on aligning their actions with our values.
  2. It serves as a role model for other chapters, showcasing what it means to be an excellent chapter within our ranks.
  3. It inspires our provisional chapters and spreads the best ideas rather than easily-replicated ones.
  4. It challenges our attendees to think critically about how chapter operations reflect our shared values.
  5. It creates a shared understanding of what excellence looks like in Phi Mu Delta through our shared value of Democracy.
  6. The presentations demonstrate what it takes to be great, including determination, a positive attitude, personal sacrifice, great stakeholder relationships, and a committed chapter.

Instead of feeling burdened by the responsibility of presenting, these chapters look forward to sharing their stories and experiences. They also want to contribute to the growth of their fellow chapters by sharing valuable lessons they have learned.

Recognition, appreciation, and celebration, along with other intentional measures to promote healthy respect and status, should be quickly implemented to create an environment that fosters growth and development. We should also consider the benefits of capstone recognition and explore ways to maximize its impact.

About the author:

Sam Waltemeyer is currently serving as the Executive Director of Phi Mu Delta Fraternity. The fraternity takes pride in positively impacting local communities through community service and promoting Democracy. Sam has previously worked as a fraternity/sorority professional at Dartmouth College, Rutgers University-Camden, and Carnegie Mellon University.

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