Perhaps you were one of the thousands who clapped our NHS workers – a small but powerful collective gesture of recognition from a grateful public. We are all aware of supermarkets with special opening times for NHS workers, providing discounts or even gifting Mother’s Day flowers. You may be less aware of spontaneous initiatives such as Portraits for NHS Heroes which saw independent artists across the UK painting free portraits for NHS key workers as a personal thankyou. A fabulous virtual exhibition of these portraits was launched today.

It begs the question – how do we honour the everyday heroes in our own organisations?

Safeguarding the organisation and its mission has been the product of the everyday heroism of the many not the few

The word hero comes from the Greek “heros” meaning to protect or defend. We typically think of heroes as exceptional beings, but the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted that safeguarding the organisation and its mission has been a product of the everyday heroism of the many, not the few. I’m talking about those selfless acts which individuals in all sectors and roles, and at all levels, have taken to “keep the show on the road” in previously unimaginable situations.

This everyday heroism has taken many shapes and forms. The chances are that you and many of your people have gone to extraordinary lengths to work from home whilst juggling caring, home schooling or other pressures in environments not entirely fit for homeworking. I recently spoke to one person whose ironing board had initially served as her desk! Others may have endured excessive workloads throughout the extended period of lockdown. Some have risked their own health to deliver services to the public. Many have shown extraordinary ingenuity in coming up with solutions and workarounds to organisational problems. And most will have done so whilst coping with a range of personal anxieties and issues arising from the pandemic.

Intrinsic good will or “altruistic capital” will continue to be at a premium as organisations navigate not just one, but multiple “new normals”

Of course, it is not uncommon for people to go “above and beyond” at moments of crisis drawing on personal resilience and a healthy dose of altruism. But the pandemic and its impact is no flash in the pan. The continuing requirement for employees to go the extra mile in order to adapt to the new challenges coming our way will be increasingly difficult to sustain over time. Throw into the mix growing levels of anxiety, which have doubled according to an international survey by Impulse, fuelled by increasing workloads and fears about job security, and it’s clear that organisations are not going to be able to trade on good will indefinitely.

Intrinsic good will or “altruistic capital” will continue to be at a premium as organisations navigate not just one, but multiple “new normals” as a result of the economic and societal aftershocks coming our way over the coming months and years.

As humans we are physiologically and psychologically equipped to cope in a crisis. But when those moments of crisis are ongoing and multiplied over a prolonged period it takes a toll on our intrinsic good will as well as our resilience.

According to research carried out by behavioural economist Prof. Nava Ashraf, one thing leaders can do to help every individual accumulate more stock of altruistic capital is to show them the social impact of what they are doing. There is no doubt that the pandemic shone a fresh light on the importance of roles we don’t immediately associate with social impact such as supermarket workers and delivery drivers. Perhaps we need to build on this sentiment and give greater kudos to the social impact of a wider range of individual roles within our own organisations?

Grass roots recognition

What struck me about the response to NHS workers was that it felt so much more personal and heartfelt than the set piece reward and recognition schemes which are a staple of most organisations. Gazing at the faces of key workers painted by independent artists as part of #portraitsfornhsheroes, I see a deeply authentic, personal connection between two strangers, more akin to love than mere appreciation. The spontaneous, grass-roots origins of these initiatives may play a big part in this strong feeling of authenticity, from Annemarie Plas who brought “Clap for our Carers,” in the UK with a post on social media, to artist Tom Croft whose Instagram offer to paint a free portrait for the first NHS key worker to respond, led thousands of artists globally to make the same offer.

Perhaps we are missing a trick by focusing our energies on engineering top-down recognition schemes. Research has consistently shown that appreciation from colleagues, customers and immediate line managers is hugely effective in sustaining motivation, but it can feel less inauthentic when framed as part of a top-down initiative.

Tapping into the power of movements

Maybe it’s time to tap into the power of movements, to look for individuals who are already finding simple and imaginative ways to show appreciation for colleagues and provide a channel for them to share their story and potentially build a movement of peer appreciation. Imagine the impact on siloed organisational cultures if such a movement crossed internal boundaries in the same way that the outpouring of appreciation for NHS workers has crossed external boundaries.

Top-down and formalised recognition schemes have their place, and many provide an opportunity for peer recognition. I have designed and implemented a great many of them myself to good effect. But maybe it is also time to channel the kinds of grass-roots thought and imagination which went into appreciating the NHS heroes, into honouring the everyday heroes under our noses in our own organisations? It would be interesting to know how you are meeting that challenge in your organisation.

If this has struck a chord, you are welcome to join me and physiologist Dr Laura Ginesi as we discuss: The impact of Coronavirus on goodwill and what this means for current and future approaches to staff recognition (4th September at 1-1.30 pm GMT). Click here to register free.