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How Haven Life uses merit badges to make work life less hard

At Haven Life, we matter to each other. Here’s one way we show it, even when we’re working remotely.

Merit badges. You probably haven’t thought about them since your scouting days, or since the whirlwind Pokemon Go summer of 2016. But it turns out — as any young scout and/ or mobile video game enthusiast will tell you — they’re pretty darn motivating. They’re a pleasure to give, and to receive.

And that’s why the team at Haven Life has begun using them as part of an innovative alternative to your standard Employee of the Month award. (No disrespect to anyone currently enjoying the hallowed Employee of the Month parking spot.) It’s called the Badges Team Building Exercise, and it was devised by firecrow, a Haven Life developer and productivity advocate. It’s a new and unique team reward system in which members of a team award digital badges to their colleagues. This ensures that everyone gets recognition, and prevents what should be a feel-good activity from becoming a competition. (As firecrow puts it, in handing out an Employee of the Month prize, “You make one person very happy and everybody hates them for it.”) As an added bonus, it was easy to implement during the past year, when our team has been working remotely, and helped bring us all closer — virtually, anyway.

The exercise has become so popular that firecrow has now guided 15 of Haven Life’s 18 product teams through the exercise. To understand where this alternative idea came from, and how it works, we spoke with firecrow, who gave us the lowdown. (But, alas, no badges.)

In this article:

How it works

For a while, the Haven Life operations team had coins — actual, minted coins — that it distributed to other members of the overall team who demonstrated extraordinary effort.

Seeing that, and thinking back to a tradition from his childhood in which members of his community would go around at birthday parties and make wishes for the coming year, firecrow devised what he originally called the Badges Appreciation Retro, now known as the Badges Team Building Exercise.

Once a quarter, firecrow and his team gather for about 45 minutes. (At most companies, this kind of meeting might be known as a post mortem, but at Haven Life, we avoid the morbid implications and instead call it a retro.) The purpose is to evaluate what we did well, and what we could do better, on a project or during a given time period. In firecrow’s version, the team works through a shared spreadsheet, live, with everyone’s name on it, and gives one another virtual badges. Each person takes three to five minutes, and awards a badge to every other person on the team, which is then represented on the spreadsheet by a number. As they award the badges, team members can provide comments as to why a teammate earned a particular badge.

The badges recognize extraordinary effort (the Everest badge); strict attention to documentation (the Scribe badge); “accomplishing an inhuman amount of work in a short time” (the Speed Demon badge); knowledge (the Subject Matter Expert badge); collaboration (the Team Player badge); and leadership — the Lion badge. Team members can receive the same badge more than once; thanks to the format of the meeting, the badges are also given anonymously. “It’s not competitive,” firecrow notes.

Can you give more than one badge to another person? Technically yes, firecrow notes, but that’s discouraged. Still, he adds, “Sometimes people get excited, and I’m not going to stop them.”

Why it works

It’s egalitarian

Everyone gives badges, and everyone receives badges. Again, this keeps one person from having the spotlight all to themselves. The variety of badges also ensures a feeling of accomplishment, as opposed to a “participation trophy” situation.

And, as firecrow notes, it can also work as a motivator. If, for example, you never receive the Speed Demon badge, it may motivate you to pick up the pace and earn that badge next time.

Maybe most importantly, the ethos of this approach harkens back to two important values at Haven Life. The first is that we aim to make life less hard — and firecrow points out that one challenge at a organization that is very egalitarian is that you don’t receive a lot of direct feedback from a boss figure. The Badges Team Building Exercise helps produce that important feedback.The other value is that we matter to each other. This exercise helps foster accountability — if you’re somehow falling short, the meeting will help you see how and why in a constructive fashion. It also generates recognition, and as we all know, hard and successful work deserves to be seen. At some organizations, it isn’t. At Haven Life, exercises like this one ensure that it is.

Hard and successful work deserves to be seen. At Haven Life, exercises like this one ensure that it is.

It’s specific

Ideally, according to firecrow, a team using this exercise would have roughly five to 10 people on it, though you could consider doing it for a team as small as three. Any bigger, and it can be hard to have visibility into how a person performed; the exercise would also take a lot longer. By keeping it small, you can praise someone’s effort and accomplishments with real life details, and genuine anecdotes taken from your close shared working experience.

It also helps to keep the badges specific and task-oriented, and avoid having too many. The Speed Demon badge works for firecrow’s team, and would likely work for yours (acknowledging someone’s ability to move on things quickly). The Scribe badge might not make as much sense if your team doesn’t rely on note-taking; you could replace it with something more specific.

In fact, firecrow originally tried to keep some of the badges intentionally vague, but it didn’t work. “One of them was actually called exemplary,” he says. “It was designed to be whatever you want to be. But nobody used it. I got some feedback from people that it was confusing to have so many things to choose from.” (We’d award firecrow a Flexibility badge for that.)

And as firecrow notes, his team’s Team Player badge fulfills the need for versatility, while still being specific enough to be used.

It’s positive

For some, an exercise like this will evoke the same eye rolling response as trust falls or Zoom happy hours. The antidote to that easy, too-cool-for-school skepticism? An anecdote like this one, from firecrow:

“I usually join the meeting about five minutes early. By far the most memorable moment was when someone I know and I’ve worked with for a while, joined a few minutes after me. It’s just him and I. And I say, ‘How’s it going?’ He’s like, ‘Oh man, we just had a retro, and I made a huge mistake. I went out on my own, I broke a bunch of stuff, and we had a bunch of bugs from it. And the team was really mad at me and it was a really, really rough retro.’”

“I got to watch the entire team dynamic, basically give compliments to each other — and then give compliments to him, and talk about, ‘you work really hard,’ or you write a lot of things down’ or ‘you pair with a lot of people.’ At first, he was really defensive, and you could see in his body language that he couldn’t take the compliments. Then over the course of the exercise, you saw him open up, and you saw the team soften. Having the appreciation retro right after a meeting that was really hard for him was really positive — I could see the dynamic heal itself, which is really cool.”

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About Louis Wilson

Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children.

Read more by Louis Wilson

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

Our disclosures

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.

MassMutual is rated by A.M. Best Company as A++ (Superior; Top category of 15). The rating is as of Aril 1, 2020 and is subject to change. MassMutual has received different ratings from other rating agencies.

Haven Life Plus (Plus) is the marketing name for the Plus rider, which is included as part of the Haven Term policy and offers access to additional services and benefits at no cost or at a discount. The rider is not available in every state and is subject to change at any time. Neither Haven Life nor MassMutual are responsible for the provision of the benefits and services made accessible under the Plus Rider, which are provided by third party vendors (partners). For more information about Haven Life Plus, please visit: https://havenlife.com/plus.html

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