What Not to Recognize with Your Employees

bob's Blog Dr. Bob Nelson

I often get asked "What do you do about employees who do not get recognized?"  For example, someone whose performance is not called out in a staff meeting or who did not receive an award for top performance.  This question amuses me, because it suggests that the person who is "left out" is somehow equally deserving of recognition and so is apt to feel hurt, offended or slighted at your oversight.
The fact of the matter is, if you are doing recognition well, you are already including everyone who is deserving, so the question really becomes "What do you do about employees who are not deserving of recognition?"  For this the answer is simpler:  Don't recognize them.  Don't fall victim to wanting to make them feel included even if their performance does not warrant your praise.  Don't thank them for simply showing up to work, when others have been working hard to get the results you most need.  Don't make them the employee-of-the-month just because they've never received it (and never deserved it)--no matter how long they've been employed.  To do so will undermine your credibility and that of the activity of recognition in your organization.

Nothing is more unfair than the equal treatment of unequals.  When you bend over backward to treat people the same, you typically stop recognizing them based upon the results they have achieved.  Whenever you give the same incentive (from verbal praisings to merit increases) to all employees, several things happen.  Your star performers will feel slighted that they receive nothing additional for their efforts and results.  And although initially this may not bother them greatly, as it becomes standard practice they will either:

1) leave the organization to find another company that better appreciates the contribution, skills and energy they have to offer (The number one reason why individuals leave organizations today is due to a lack of praise and recognition), or

2) stay with the organization, but stop working so hard to be a top performer.  After all, they rationalize, "no one seems to notice or care anyway."  Who would you rather have alienated: your top performers or individuals who feel "left out" when recognition is granted?

If one of my employees ever comes to ask or complain why they did not receive recognition for an achievement for which I praised someone else in the department, I always view this in one of two ways:

1) I made a mistake and need to correct it.  "Tell me, Sally, what you did and if I overlooked that achievement I apologize and will reference you in the next staff meeting."  It is difficult for a manager to know everything that goes on in his department and occasionally feedback mechanisms need to be modified to include information about results and contributions that were previously unknown to the manager. OR

2) The employee has not warranted a praising and I now have a chance to talk to him openly about the topic.  "I'm really glad you came to talk to me about this, but frankly, Tom, I haven't seen where your performance merits recognition.   I would like to be able to recognize you and would like to discuss what would need to be different  in your performance for that to happen--and how I can help you."  For some employees, such a discussion might be the first spark of interest in wanting to be a higher performer and the start of an entirely new level of contribution to the department.  It gives you a chance to start over with new performance goals for the employee and a plan to attain those goals.

The power of recognition really works:  You get what you reward.  Don't misuse this power by confusing what you recognize.  Consistently recognize desired performance and you will get more of it.

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