Why Managers Don’t Recognize Their Employees

by Bob Nelson ©

Publisher: Inside Office

Although the concept of positive reinforcement and the related principle that you get what you reward are well-founded in the psychology literature, the effective use of positive reinforcement by practicing managers is uneven and often totally lacking in day-to-day business operations. My Ph.D. study explored the conditions that enable or inhibit the use by managers of non-monetary recognition (NMR).

The Study

For each of 34 organizations, data from a set of managers who were identified as frequent users of non-monetary recognition were matched against a set of managers who were infrequent users of the behavior, using three forms of validation to confirm accurate category placement. High-use (HU) and low-use (LU) managers were initially identified by an organizational sponsor and then confirmed by a manager's self-report and reports by at least three employees who reported to each manager.

A broad-based national survey was conducted of all managers in the sample, based on variables drawn primarily from three domains of the motivation literature. Survey questions explored the motivation for the use of non-monetary recognition, ranging from past experience with the behavior (social learning theory), to present reinforcement of the behavior (reinforcement theory), to future expectations from the behavior (expectancy theory).

Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement theory provided the strongest support for explaining differences in the use of NMR: High-use managers were reinforced for using NMR (most notably by their employees), while low-use managers were not reinforced for using the behavior, perhaps in part because they seldom displayed the behavior.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory provided uneven support: High-use managers were significantly more likely to have had parents who modeled NMR, although neither high-use nor low-use managers reported their managers modeled the behavior. High-use managers clearly internalized the importance of the activity and made intentional plans to practice its use on a daily basis, whereas low-use managers felt strongly that the behavior was not important, thus did not seek to make plans to use the behavior.

Expectancy Theory

Expectancy theory provided strong support: High-use managers had the skills and confidence to use NMR and felt strongly that doing so would lead to desired outcomes, whereas low-use managers did not know how to effectively provide NMR and felt strongly that its use would lead to undesired outcomes.

In addition, the study found the manager's age to be the only highly significant demographic variable that distinguished the two groups. Older managers were less likely to practice NMR or feel its use was important today. Neither gender nor personality type was found to be significant in distinguishing high-use from low-use managers in this study.

Emergent Patterns

In looking at these findings, a pattern emerged of behavior cycles that differentiated managers who use recognition from those who do not. Managers who were high-users tended to have an initial positive experience with the behavior, which made them more likely to use NMR with those they managed. The managers were reinforced for the use of NMR by (in order of significance): their employees, themselves, other colleagues, suppliers, and their own managers.

They also obtained the results they desired in using NMR, which included increased performance (see sidebar on this page) and morale on the part of their employees. Based on this success, they were more likely to use the behavior again to the point in which they internalized the importance of the behavior, and increased their skills and confidence, so that it became a daily part of their behavioral repertoire as a manager.

Negative Cycle

For managers who did not use NMR, a negative cycle seemed evident: Managers did not have an initial positive experience with the use of NMR and thus were inclined not to use NMR. Since they didn't use NMR, they had little or no chance of being reinforced for the behavior. No benefits were thus derived from the use of NMR, and any concerns or fears about the behavior essentially became excuses for not doing the behavior, thus neither skills nor confidence were enhanced, and the behavior was not internalized. To take just one sample excuse, low-users said they didn't have time to use NMR, whereas high-users cited "time" as one of the top reasons they used NMR, in that they could have a significant impact on employees and performance with very little time through the effective use of NMR.

These findings further suggest that to trigger a positive cycle of NMR use on the part of managers, it may be more important for them to have a positive personal experience in the use of NMR, more so than available programs, tools, or other resources for providing recognition to their employees.