Recognition Questions

Here are the most common recognition questions Dr. Bob is asked:

1) Why don’t managers recognize their employees or do so more often?

I spent three years trying to answer this specific question in my doctoral studies.  After all, there is extensive evidence that recognition works to increase employee performance, engagement and morale AND the best forms of recognition have little or no cost.  It seems like a no-brainer that managers would work it into their daily behavioral repertoire as a simple means for them to be more effective in their positions, but more times than not, they don’t.  The #1 reason I found in my research as to why managers don’t recognize employees is “they aren’t sure how to do it well” followed by a lot of other related factors such as: they are uncomfortable with the behavior, they are afraid they might leave someone out, no one does it for them, the organization doesn’t support the behavior, etc.  When I dug deeper into their beliefs I often found a more predominate belief that “People should be glad they’ve got a job” and “Let me know who’s not motivated and I’ll have a little talk with them about it!”

2) Why isn’t money enough?  Why do I have to do other things to recognize employees?

Money is important to employees, of course, but it’s also part of their work contract.  Everyone gets a paycheck, but not everyone feels valued where they work.  Recognition is a simple way to get more value from every employee that you most likely would not otherwise get.  It’s a way to tap into the discretionary energy that every employee has to use if they really want to.  I’ve found that you can’t force people to perform at higher levels—it will always be their choice whether they do so or not.

3) Our managers know they should recognize their employees, but they feel they’re too busy to do so.  What can we do?

I’ve found that making recognition happen is iterative, so try to build on and expand from your successes. Discuss with the managers the increasing problem of attracting and retaining employees, the hidden costs, the loss of productivity and competitiveness. Show the demographics and what your competition is doing. Relate the issue to the bottom line. You can’t force managers to recognize their employees, but you can make a persuasive case for why they should want to do so. Remember too that “time” can be an excuse. In my doctoral research, I found that high-use recognition managers actually valued recognition in part because it can be well done with very little time!

4) How do you get managers to start providing (more) employee recognition?

I’ve found you have to have a three-pronged approach that addresses managers’ Head, Hands and Heart.  The Head is their conceptual model of managing and how this is an essential part of managing today.  Show them the research as to the importance of this topic to employees today and what they (and the organization) stand to gain by doing this simple daily behavior.  The Hands is showing them specifically what the behavior looks like.  A manager can be well-intentioned and still not do a simple behavior because it’s unfamiliar to them.  This is why I’m such a big believer in the power of examples:  It shows what other managers have specifically done and the results they obtained by doing those things.  The Heart is getting managers to believe in the topic of recognition from their own experience.  Once they’ve had success with the behavior, seen the impact of the topic and received feedback from their employees, they are on their way to making the behavior an ongoing part of their daily management style.   

5) If you praise employees frequently, won't it be more difficult to discipline them when necessary?

If you are specific about what you are praising the person for, this is less of a problem. Generic praise such as “You’re one of my best employees” can be misleading to the employee because it seems to indicate little, if any, need for improvement. You can leverage those things the individual is good at as evidence that he or she can improve in other areas of the job, for example, “Gary, I know you can make these new changes we’ve discussed, because I’ve seen how well you handle assignments that you put your mind to.” As the person makes improvements, be sure to notice and acknowledge those improvements. This will be one of the best ways to assure that the improved performance continues.  When you discipline someone, you have to make sure that the person feels you are on his or her side. If someone is on a performance improvement plan, it is essential that you notice when the person has made improvement of any type to start to build the positive momentum toward enhanced performance. Typically, doing so will make the employee’s progress easier and show that you are in it together.

6) If you recognize one person, aren't you NOT recognizing everyone else?  That is, what do you do about the employees who feel left out?

Whenever someone in your organization is upset about someone else being recognized (and not him- or herself), this should be a red flag that you are not doing enough recognition. When recognition is a scarce commodity, people have a tendency to want to cling to it and, for that matter, keep in the spotlight as long as possible because they are never sure when it will come around again. Leaving employees out does not tend to be a problem in organizations that have developed a strong recognition culture, that have a variety of formal and informal programs and tools, and where managers place an emphasis on daily recognition practices and behaviors.

As a start toward moving toward such an “abundance” mentality, revamp your recognition activities and programs to avoid a single “winner” or quota. Instead, create opportunities for everyone to be potential winners, such as having an honor roll for those employees who have all practiced a key value or set of behaviors of the organization within a given time period, instead of an employee-of-the-month program, which honors a single recipient. Also, remember, if some of the best forms of recognition tend to have little if any cost (e.g., verbal and written praise, public praise, symbolic gestures by managers, pass around awards, etc.), there is absolutely no reason not to do more of these activities in a timely, sincere, and personal way!"

7) My company does a lot to recognize their employees, but employees report they don't receive much recognition.  What's going on?

Many organizations confuse lots of employee activities with equating to lots of recognition – it’s not.  The type of activities you referenced falls into a narrow band on the recognition spectrum.  Such activities may help morale and social interaction among employees, but tend not to make any individual employee feel special.  The best recognition singles individuals or groups out for extraordinary performance.  It is contingency-based upon those things that make the biggest difference to the group’s mutual success.  If people don’t appreciate those things you are doing, you need to consider doing things they do value more.

8) How can we get top management to support recognition activities?

Different people are persuaded differently. The best advice I have is to think of other times when top management in your company has been persuaded (to purchase equipment, approve a policy exception, hire a person, etc.) and what served to convince them at that time (data, cost/benefit analysis, urgency of the problem, competitor doing it, personal appeal, etc.). Now mimic what worked!  (ps:  I have an entire chapter of The 1001 Rewards & Recognition Fieldbook focused on selling recognition to upper management.)

9) Our recognition programs are feeling stale.  How can we reenergize them?

Any recognition program or activity can get old and lose energy, especially over a number of years. Hold a focus group or find a way to collect information about why people do not use the existing program. Include the biggest cynics on the review team to gain their feedback. It may be that the program just needs to be re-launched to remind people of its existence and new incentives need to be established. Or, you may discover that the program has run its course and it would be better to do something new and exciting.

10) We hold some recognition events that a lot of employees—even ones receiving the awards—do not attend. How can we get employees to come to these events?

If you throw a party and no one comes, was it really a party?  I don't want to seem flip about it, but my guess is the events you are referring to have lost their pizzazz and don't do much for those who are invited to attend. You need to host recognition events that create a buzz with employees, where fun things happen! Build anticipation: announce that upper management will be serving the refreshments, list door prizes that will be given for attendance, hire a standup comedian-- that type of thing. Another possibility is your choice of time and venue. I worked with a hospital recently that held all recognition events during off hours so that employees had to stay an extra hour or two after what was usually already a long shift or even forced overtime. Talk about excitement! For employees who feel overworked and stressed, their preference for being thanked is to allow them to go home to their families. The last thing on their minds is "How can I spend more of my limited free time at work

11) Can too much recognition lead to constantly escalating forms of recognition or unfulfilled expectations on the part of employees?

Employee motivation today is a moving target. You've got to be in constant contact with your employees to determine what they most value and then find ways to systematically act on those desired forms of recognition and rewards as they perform well. Yes, you need to vary your forms of recognition, adding new things, experimenting, and so forth, but you can also stop doing other things that have run their course and are no longer very motivating to employees. The alternative is that if you keep doing the same things year after year, you'll likely end up with a very boring place to work. Variety is the spice of life and as you try new things---especially things your employees are interested in---your rewards will be higher morale, productivity, performance, and retention. Certainly that should provide some motivation for you to stay the course! p.s.: The one form of recognition that never seems to get old is effective praise. If you are timely, sincere, and specific in thanking employees when they have done good work, this form of recognition tends to never get old.

12) How is the best way to make recognition become part of an organization’s culture?

One step at a time. Create a motivation baseline and move in the desired direction a step at a time. Start small and build on your success. Ask, “Who wants to help?” and run with those individuals who see the need and are positive about the change. Build momentum, which can become a critical mass and lead to a quantum leap in which every manager in your operation one day knows the value of recognition and acts on it as a matter of course in his or her daily behavioral repertoire with employees.

Creating a recognition culture is a messy, nonlinear process that involves taking time to assess what employees feel could most make a difference and then taking that feedback seriously in making change happen in the organization. Start with those employees who have the most energy for improving the level of recognition and build on your successes, learning along the way. Training is an important part of raising awareness about the need to recognize employees systematically in meaningful ways, helping managers develop the skills they need to recognize others well, and setting the expectation of all managers that they need to make recognition a priority in their jobs. Regarding managers’ performance evaluations, their ability to manage and motivate staff should be an integral part of how they are evaluated in their jobs; otherwise, the activity is not likely to be taken seriously.”

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