Why Recognition Programs Don't Work


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

Anonymous's picture

Hi Steve,

Yes, I know you're an extravert. :-)

I'm not opposed to superstar awards at all. I'm only opposed to them when they are the sole means of recognizing people's efforts. I too have received superstar awards, and loved both receiving them and receiving them publicly, with plaques and the whole works.

My post wasn't about public vs. private means of showing recognition, it was about receiving vs. not receiving recognition. It was about certain people being singled out when others who worked hard and did good stood no chance of getting any recognition at all. Not even a "nice job." Not even a "thank you."

That was the case in the organization I described. People -- introverts AND extraverts -- felt unrecognized. Except, maybe, for the 2 superstars, who certainly deserved the recognition, but not at a meeting at which almost everyone attending was miserable because of the lack of recognition (among other reasons).

Your comment "Management's explicit intent ought to be about showing people appreciation for their efforts." is right on target. And thanks for pointing out that managers who use the type of recognition that please the person being recognized will be most effective. Thanks for contributing to the conversation. It's such an interesting topic. ~Naomi

June 15, 2010 - 2:59am
Anonymous's picture

In government we had recognition programs. We had a budget for awards. Usually, each year someone would rush in the door and proclaim, "the time limit for awards expires this Friday, we have to spend all of this year's award money this week or it will go away. Quick, can anyone think of someone who should have gotten an award this year?"

It was like the Dilbert cartoon where the boss asks, "Who had a birthday this year?"

PS - I too first thought the post was about facial recognition software. But I liked what you wrote better.

June 15, 2010 - 2:38pm
Anonymous's picture

Dwayne, I too would enjoy reading an article on recognition programs of the software kind. I hope someone will write it. In the meantime, no article on recognition programs is complete without the government angle -- though (in defense of government) I've seen similarly Dilbert-esque things in the private sector. Still, in the case of government, it's reassuring to know that my tax money is supporting last-minute choose-or-lose-it recognition programs. :-) ~Naomi

June 15, 2010 - 2:42pm
Anonymous's picture

Hi Naomi, I enjoyed reading your reply to my comment. All the comments and replies have added to an excellent article.

I was thinking about my experiences with employee recognition, especially recognition programs. I recall that the programs that tried to recognize all the employees were as bad or worse than the programs that only recognized a few individuals. When management invests several hours during a once a year event providing the equivalent recognition as the typical graduate receives at their high school graduation, it's a failure.

Recognition, which ought to be renamed APPRECIATION, doesn't feel special when it's done in an assembly line fashion. The process of poorly done recognition program creates the antithesis of its goal; rather than people feeling appreciated, they feel devalued.

Between the extremes of appreciating everyone individually and only appreciating the superstars lies the effective approach. That's a lot of territory. But the focus ought to be on a combination of things throughout the year. Management should be free to innovate rather than be stuck in some prescribed organizational method.

Organizations that are constructive make it clear that appreciation ought to flow in three directions -- management demonstrably appreciating employees and employees demonstratively appreciating their co-workers AND THEIR MANAGEMENT. Managers are people. They need appreciation too.

June 15, 2010 - 9:03pm
Anonymous's picture

Steve, as I was reading your latest post, I was thinking, "Yeah, I agree with that point, and I'll mention it in responding." But then there was another point I agreed with and another and another, and there's no point quoting your entire post back to you. I agree with everything you said.

I'd especially emphasize your point that recognition ought to be renamed Appreciation -- and that the focus should be on a combination of things throughout the year -- and that managers are people too (this one will come as a surprise to some people) and they too need appreciation. And...and...and...

Mainly what was on my mind when I wrote the blog was that managers should say "Hey, thanks" once in a while when it's appropriate and "Good job!" now and then as circumstances warrant. Nothing formal or contrived or insincere or on a fixed schedule. These little bits of recognition/appreciation would have made a world of difference in the company I was consulting to. But the managers themselves admitted that they had been bumped up into management without adequate training or preparation, and were clueless about how to be good managers.

I sure do appreciate you for helping to make this such a lively conversation. ~Naomi

June 15, 2010 - 9:10pm
Anonymous's picture

One of our employees speaks of a study with data which backs up your article, but she doesn't know where to find it anylonger. I would like a copy of it to demonstrate to our admin team that research does support this idea. Would you by chance have a reference for such a study?

July 2, 2010 - 10:24pm
Anonymous's picture

Marga, here's info from a couple of studies: "A 2003 Gallup poll reported that 61% of employee surveyed reported that they hadn't received any meaningful positive attention in the past year. Another study indicated that 53% of employee respondents left an employer due to lack of incentives or lack of recognition and praise." Source: http://www.groco.com/readingroom/bus_employeerecognition.aspx (there's other info in this article you might find useful).

If you google "why recognition programs don't work" you'll find other info that may help you make the case to your admin team.Send me your email address if you'd like (I'm at [email protected]) and if I come across other relevant studies, I'll let you know. ~Naomi

July 2, 2010 - 10:34pm
Anonymous's picture

I could not have said it better. These are salient points that all managers seem to be ignorant of. The objective is not to create an environment of resentment and de motivation.

July 15, 2010 - 6:11pm
Anonymous's picture

Thanks so much! I wouldn't go so far as to say that ALL managers are ignorant of these points, because there may be some (or optimistically, many) who do get it. But it does seem to apply to an awful lot of managers. ~Naomi

July 15, 2010 - 6:47pm
Anonymous's picture

Very good article and good comments. One additional point to add is that in awards based systems as described above in some cases it causes some people to withhold information so they can come in and save the day as a hero rather than provide the information and save the time and effort that would be spent trying to recreate the wheel before they decide to share their knowledge.

July 16, 2010 - 4:22pm


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