Habits That Inhibit Effective Recognition

Some leaders rarely, if ever, recognize the efforts of their employees. Others sincerely believe they give sufficient recognition, but in fact do not.

Of the two scenarios, the latter is the more challenging by far. When our hearts are in right place, it is difficult for us to realize that our desired outcomes are not actually being achieved.

(This is an example of our espoused theories fooling us into believing our behavior is achieving something other than what it really is.)

So how can well-meaning leaders increase the likelihood that that their efforts to recognize their employees are having the effect they think they are?

Being aware of (and avoiding) the following pitfalls is a good place to start:

  • Formal recognition policies. Formal recognition programs are generally well-intentioned, but all too all easily can degenerate into impersonal expressions of corporate bureaucracy. Scott Adams, creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip, shares the following example: “As I approached the front of the room to accept my award it became apparent that the executive running the program didn’t know what I did for a living. Thinking quickly, he invented an entirely fictitious project for the benefit of the audience and thanked me for my valuable contribution to its success.” Recognition programs are not inherently bad, but they do constitute corporate policies, which have been identified one of the top sources of workplace demotivation.
  • Generic compliments. Adams’ story also touches on the issue of specificity. To be meaningful, recognition must be specific, concrete, and informed. It must spring from time spent with employees and familiarity with their capacities and duties. Most of us have had the boss who threw “good job”s around to motivate the team, and we know how hollow such generic compliments can sound. Effective recognition must rest on leaders’ personal involvement and investment.
  • Above and beyond. Leaders often associate recognition primarily with outstanding or unusual accomplishment. Extraordinary victories should certainly be celebrated. But every organization relies on numerous positions that, while crucial, offer few opportunities for above-and-beyond distinction. Given that organizational performance can depend in large part on these jobs, leaders must recognize contribution as well as distinction. Recognition of this kind applauds the unobtrusive, behind-the-scenes kinds of service that can so easily be overlooked or taken for granted.
  • Every couple of months. Many leaders feel that they recognize their employees, and they are right. What they fail to do, however, is give recognition at a level and frequency that impacts employees’ views of themselves, their work, and their organization.  In their best-selling book, First, Break All The Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman explored the critical importance of employees feeling that they have received recognition or praise in the past seven days. Many of us recognize employees; very few of us offer recognition at that level of frequency and consistency.

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