Why Recognition Programs Don't Work

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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.

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29 comments
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Good article! I specifically like the idea of appreciating those people who may just be doing what they are supposed to do. This would apply to majority though management always promotes the idea of doing more than what fits your role and responsibilities.

July 16, 2010 - 4:38pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Check out "Drive" by David Pink. He shows why such programs don't work, with data to support the conclusions. People would like a pat on the back, but want consistent treatment, fair pay, opportunities to improve and be promoted, leadership, and trust by peers and managers. In my experience, having those things, in conjunction with interesting work, can generate great work/products, satisfied--if not delighted--customers, and a pleasant, enjoyable workplace. Miss any of the key conditions, especially leadership, and an organization will operate below maximum capability.

July 16, 2010 - 4:39pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Clark, you are absolutely right. The very nature of rewards leads some people to behave in ways that will improve their odds of receiving the rewards. People are exceedingly clever in finding ways to work the system in their favor. That's why it's so important when creating a recognition program, or any sort of award program, to ask, How could this program backfire? How could it lead to behavior that's the opposite of what we're hoping to generate?<br><br>Manmeet, I'm glad you like the point about offering appreciations. Expressing appreciation to employees is one of the most important things a manager can do. Too many people work hard and do the job they're supposed to do, yet hear nothing from the manager until they go above and beyond -- or they screw up. People deserve to hear that they're doing a good job, even if that's "all" they're doing. <br><br>Craig, thanks for mentioning "Drive" by Daniel Pink. I recommend it also. The information he presents makes me worried about programs that pay kids to read books. Sure, some kids will read the books and claim their reward. But will they want to read books thereafter when reading is not tied to a financial incentive? Your comment about what people want bears repeating: "People would like a pat on the back, but want consistent treatment, fair pay, opportunities to improve and be promoted, leadership, and trust by peers and managers."

July 16, 2010 - 4:44pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

What about so called peer recognitions programs? we have a program "employee of the moment" which is a pat on the back from one of your peers. This list of recipients then gets put into a hat and prizes awarded weekly. Sometimes I'm not sure of the sincerity of Peer recognitions as there is no real check, and it could be just "today i give you one, you get me next week".

July 19, 2010 - 8:07pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Pat, I favor peer recognition programs more than many others, but I also share your skepticism. Like most programs of this kind, it can be abused. At least in theory though, everyone stands a chance of being recognized. And if there's visibility about what the people being recognized have done to earn the recognition, perhaps it's worth the risk. I'd hate to see programs like this put under the microscope to search for evidence of misuse, such as (using your example) "you do for me and I'll do for you." Sometimes it's better to just take a chance. But you're right that without any check at all, there's no way to be sure what's really happening. ~Naomi

July 19, 2010 - 8:08pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

I do not like peer recognition programs -- I was the unfortunate victim of one. The program went on and on until finally each person had received the prize -- a cheap homemade certificate for the wall. It was nothing but a popularity contest. The way it worked was that the person who won last month, got to choose who won next month. The program was finally able to come to an end when the last person won -- me. The thing circled around repeatedly -- friend choosing friend. Sorry for sounding bitter, but it was exactly like being picked last for kickball (but that was not me).

July 27, 2010 - 5:33pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Cheryl, wow, it makes me feel pain just reading about your experience, especially given your analogy to being the last one picked for kickball (which was exactly the situation I faced as a kid). Peer recognition programs can't work if they are merely popularity contests. In implementing programs like this, management fails to consider the impact on those not chosen, or chosen last. <br><br>Your experience is an excellent example of how-not-to. Thanks for being willing to share it. ~Naomi

July 27, 2010 - 5:38pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

The flip side of this is a big huge slap in the face to management. <br><br>If you're recognizing the same people over and over then you screwed up. You hired wrong. You're not offering the right training. You're not coaching, mentoring and leading the way you should. You're perhaps using favoritsm and retaliation methods. Your employees may not be helping one another. Now don't get me wrong......there are people who wll never rise to a certain level, but recognition can be a good thing.<br><br>Recognition when done right can be fun, fair and provide opportunities to inspire people to become more engaged in their work. Maybe what is needed is RECOGNITION by leaders where they need to get better at leading and engaging people?

August 24, 2010 - 9:44pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Rich, absolutely right about management's failure if the some people repeatedly earn recognition.<br><br>Regarding recognition being fun, I want to highlight the idea you described in one of our conversations. Namely, in holding a recognition event, give everyone a sticker of an award and have them write their own. This is a great idea. <br><br>It reminds me of a group I worked with. At the end of the project, everyone received a formal-looking award certificate in which the person was to fill in his/her name, the name of an award the person wanted to be recognized for, and what the award was for. Humor in completing the certificate was roundly encouraged.<br><br>After people filled in their certificates, the project manager collected them, and then in front of the assembled group and with all due pomp and circumstance, read out each person's certificate and called that person up to the front to collect it and receive the applause of all present. Everyone got into the swing of it and had a lot of laughs during the award ceremony. It was a wonderfully light-hearted approach. And no one felt left out. ~Naomi

August 24, 2010 - 9:16pm

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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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