Why Recognition Programs Don't Work

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Summary:

I was consulting to an IT organization in which employee morale was rapidly slithering to the bottom of the employee satisfaction chart. These people, hard workers all, felt unappreciated. It was as if, no matter what they did, their managers barely noticed.

My task was to help turn things around and we were making progress. So when I attended an IT division meeting at which one of the managers excitedly announced that two employees had earned the recently implemented "Superstar Award," I cringed. Not because two individuals were being recognized for their efforts, but because 187 others weren't. And hadn't been.

Singling out two individuals for special attention is fine in theory. And in a well-run organization, it can also work in practice. But it runs a high risk of making all other employees feel that their efforts don't count unless other forms of recognition are available to the rest of the employees. And announcing the Superstar Award with great enthusiasm at a meeting at which the majority of people attending felt unnoticed and taken for granted was a blooper and a half.

When people say they want recognition, they rarely mean they want a recognition program. What they typically mean is that they want an occasional pat on the back. They want a once-in-a-while attaboy. They want a manager to say, "You've been working hard and I want you to know I noticed." They want a manager's manager to send an email that says, "Nice job." They want an occasional, "Thank you for your efforts." They want to know that someone in authority notices they're working hard and appreciates it. What's nice about this type of recognition is that it takes no time and costs nothing, yet has a big impact. Yet so many organizations fall short in doing it.

Not everyone can be a superstar. And those who truly are superstars keep rising to the top, ensuring that others—those who work hard every single day don't stand a chance of receiving special recognition. Therefore, the kind of recognition program I favor isn't a formal program, but a way of working in which every single individual in the organization stands a chance of being recognized at one time or another—even if only for doing what they're supposed to be doing.

Recognition is misguided if it singles out those who went above and beyond, while ignoring those who take their job seriously, work hard, and strive to do their best. And a recognition program that doesn't recognize the power of "thank you" and "nice job" is incomplete, no matter how many superstars it acknowledges.

User Comments

29 comments
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

What do you think of recognition to encourage diversity? <br><br>Like this: <a href="http://sites.google.com/site/diversityinagile/project-definition#TOC-Pro... rel="nofollow">sites.google.com/site/diversityinagile/project-definition#TOC-Program-Mission</a><br><br>I believe that your thoughts apply to those programs, too.

June 9, 2010 - 1:44am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Hi Jon. Interesting, this program. It would certainly seem prone to the same pitfalls. Sometimes, with the best of intentions to do good for certain people or situations, we end up doing a disservice to other people or situations. It'll be interesting to see if any of those currently active in the agile community start shouting, "Hey, whatabout me????" ~Naomi

June 9, 2010 - 1:50am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

I love the points you make here. Let's face it, at the end of the day, organizations don't want just one or 2 superstars carrying the load. What they want (and need) are teams of "those who take their job seriously, work hard, and strive to do their best." Singling out the superstars alone doesn't strengthen your teams.<br><br>Sincere and direct appreciation for the indivuals, and their specific contributions, have impact. You can do this one-on-one, but isn't it also true that acknowledging and appreciation someone for who they are and what they've done in front of others has more impact? I'm thinking a healthy mix - of thank yous and great work and I appreciate yous - one-on-one, in front of others, and in writing - might make for a nice basis for a program. These things take some effort, a little time, and no money. And anyone can implement them (there's no approval process for saying thank you).

June 12, 2010 - 2:02am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Lori, you are so on target about the impact of recognition (both done well and done poorly) on teams. Also, your point that to be effective, appreciation should be sincere, direct and specific.<br><br>Often public recognition is just fine. Some people, though, much prefer to be appreciated privately. For them, public recognition is uncomfortable and even awkward, particularly if they aren't accustomed to being appreciated. So the manager (or person doing the appreciating) needs to carefully judge who might be receptive to public recognition and who might not. I do agree that what's needed is a healthy mix of one-on-one, public, and in writing. I'd especially emphasize in writing, since this is so rarely done. <br><br>Your comment about no approval process needed to thank someone made me laugh, thinking about all the bureaucracy in some organizations and what it would be like if approvals were required. Pretty obvious, though, I guess -- no one would ever be thanked! Thank YOU for your comments (no approval needed here!). ~Naomi

June 12, 2010 - 2:03am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

And here i was thinking it would be a cool post about facial recognition software ah...

June 14, 2010 - 4:33pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Wow, I never even considered the possibility of another interpretation of the title. This is proof of how prevalent the potential for ambiguity is. Sorry to disappoint, but thanks for the idea for a future blog! :-) ~Naomi

June 14, 2010 - 4:33pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Hehe :)) No problem. Was a good post never the less! :)

June 15, 2010 - 12:03am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Interesting point of view, and I think I agree but I wanted to make sure. It sounds like you are suggesting employees don't want recognition of effort so much as personal attention and commitment. If this is the case, then I would agree. In my experience simply offering a "pat on the back" as you put it will seldom result in anything beyond apathy or even mockery if its not backed up with actual empathy and a commitment from management to invest either time or money in them. This commitment to personal attention, mentoring, and help with career growth can be burdensome to leaders or management, but it's the only coin I've seen actually pay back results with any consistency.<br><br>Again, if i"m simply restating your intent please just let me know. I have an annoying tendency toward pontification sometimes.

June 15, 2010 - 12:15am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Curtis, worry not. Your comments didn't come across as pontificating. And I think we are basically in agreement.<br><br>I think people *do* want recognition for their effort, but they'd like it to be direct, specific, sincere, and timely. And they'd like to be recognized for doing the jobs they're paid to do, even if they don't achieve superstar status in doing them. A rote "pat on the back" that's not backed up with genuine empathy is obnoxious. Unfortunately, some managers are guilty of this, mostly, I believe, because they truly don't know any better.<br><br>While people would certainly like commitment from management in the form of investment of money, when that money is simply not available, an investment in time via mentoring etc. (as you described) can make all the difference. It may be the most that management can do. It's also the least they can do. ~Naomi<br>

June 15, 2010 - 12:18am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Hi Naomi, When managers create a recognition program with the explicit intent of improving morale, it's a recipe for disaster. Management's explicit intent ought to be about showing people appreciation for their efforts.<br><br>Many fortunate people were taught this skill by their mothers who demonstrated appreciation by sending thank you notes to people in her social circle. She realized that this skill wasn't something that was genetically passed. She learned it from her mother so she taught her kids how to do it and made certain that they did it.<br><br>Sending a thank you card is something that managers can easily do. And I believe that action is in the spirit of your article.<br><br>A final thought -- I think there may be an introvert preference lurking in your article. As you know, I'm an extrovert. I've had the experience of being recognized as a superstar. Saying I didn't enjoy the experience would be lie. Several introverts I know are uncomfortable with receiving public recognition. They would prefer private recognition. A manager who knows the introvert can easily make this adjustment. Making the same kind of adjustment for extroverts who crave public recognition is important. In other words, the manager who use the type of recognition that pleases a person will be the most effective (and appreciated in return).

June 15, 2010 - 2:52am

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About the author

Naomi Karten's picture Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a highly experienced speaker and seminar leader who draws from her psychology and IT backgrounds to help organizations improve customer satisfaction, manage change, and strengthen teamwork. She has delivered seminars and keynotes to more than 100,000 people internationally. Naomi's newest books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Her other books and ebooks include Managing Expectations, Communication Gaps and How to Close Them, and How to Survive, Excel and Advance as an Introvert. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions & Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. She is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com. When not working, Naomi's passion is skiing deep powder. Contact her at naomi@nkarten.com or via her Web site, www.nkarten.com.

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