Recognition Tips

by Alex Hiam

   I have found that most entrepreneurs do not consider recognition a central part of their management practices. But let's get personal and talk about you. I bet you don't budget an extra three percent on top of your payroll costs for employee rewards, awards, celebrations and gifts, yet that is the goal of many of the recognition specialists I meet from large firms.
   Is this a luxury for companies that can afford to waste money? I don't think so. In fact, I think there are many profitable returns from an emphasis on recognition. It probably costs us not to do it. Here are some ideas that I think can apply in every workplace, no matter the size or budget:

  •    Recognize more frequently. This may sound obvious, but still the biggest management mistake made in most workplaces is ignoring good performances and good performers. If you give good effort and good work no attention, it will gradually get worse. Increasing the frequency of recognition is still a major priority.
       One of the keys to more frequent recognition is of course to continue working on that all-important relationship between employee and supervisor - where daily recognition needs to take place.
       Another important step is to examine and improve all the organization's feedback mechanisms. Feedback mechanisms are any ways employees can see how well they are doing at their work - and how well their work is doing at achieving important goals. Recognition can help make scoreboards visible and bring attention to key information about performance. It can help overcome the problem that exists where most employees work in a partial feedback vacuum.
  •    Recognize effort before results. It takes effort to produce results. Recognizing end results is like standing on the finish line of a marathon waiting to cheer the winner. Not only is it a boring thing to do, but also more important, it will not affect how anyone runs the race.
       There are also subtle but powerful effects between the kind of motivation you get and whether you emphasize efforts or results in your recognition. Results-oriented recognition produces results-oriented performances. People will do whatever they need to in order to get the result-oriented recognition. I think with the recent spate of headlines about improper accounting practices and falsified sales revenues we can appreciate that this is not a healthy perspective. But nor is it a successful perspective. There is plenty of research showing that people who focus hard on winning a desired end result do not perform as well or develop as fast as those who focus more on HOW they perform and attend to the challenges of improving their technique. This holds true in sports, school, and work - everywhere you find people striving for success, you will find that a results focus limits performance potential.
       In addition, if we think about the importance of types of performance associated with intrinsic motivation - initiative, flexibility and so forth - we might want to use the type of recognition that encourages intrinsic motivation the most. Which is that? Again, we find that a focus on effort is superior to a focus on results. Recognizing the end result tends to produce extrinsic motivation. You perform because it is what you have to do to get the reward. Maybe that's fine if you want to train your dog to roll over - but remember that it will never go out into the back yard alone to practice its tricks.    Great if you want employees to perform tricks on command. Not so good if you expect them to act like intelligent, caring, resourceful people!
  •    Use recognition to maintain a positive emotional perspective toward the work. We know that people who are feeling up and optimistic are capable of far more and better work over a longer period of time. Good moods enhance all sorts of important things, such as problem solving, listening, energy, endurance, conflict-management, volunteering and helpfulness. Teams don't function well without a positive emotional framework for them. Employees don't exhibit initiative, drive, or enthusiasm without a positive emotional framework. In short, you need the right emotional foundation in order to have any of the performance qualities we want today in the workplace. So it is important to use recognition to make sure the right emotional foundations are in place. Recognition oriented toward producing and rewarding specific performances is WASTED unless the right emotional climate is there already, so it makes sense to put some of our recognition efforts into managing the emotional climate.
       How? This might seem like uncharted territory to many people, but in truth we often do this to some extent already, as part of our broader recognition efforts. When you work on a recognition event or program in order to create excitement, good humor, or fun, you are managing the emotional climate through your recognition methods. Celebrating a birthday recognizes only that someone lived long enough to be a year older�so what? But if done with the right spirit, this simple recognition ceremony can create and sustain the emotional foundations of good work, so it serves a higher purpose than its specific role might suggest.
  •    Use recognition and rewards to symbolize powerful high-level motivators, not to substitute for them. Most managers still think of a recognition or reward as the thing an employee will work for. Not so! In general, both tangible and intangible rewards have little motivating power on their own. They gain their power from their ability to highlight and symbolize things like important goals, notable achievements, and special efforts. Always link any recognition to a significant goal or accomplishment or other powerful intrinsic motivator, especially if the recognition takes the form of a tangible reward or so-called incentive.
       It is the thing the incentive symbolizes that actually provides the most compelling and valuable inventive to perform, not the thing itself. This is true of expensive incentives too�we do not do good work on a sustained basis for bribes or treats, no matter how fine they may be. We do good work because there is good work that needs doing and we feel good about doing it! Rewards should always be used to strengthen this fundamental equation, not substitute for it.
       One of the things employees respond strongly to is considerate treatment from their managers. They want to work where they are appreciated, where they are treated politely and where it is clear they are valued. Recognizing a tough week by having an ice cream break or by arranging a delivery of fresh fruit is powerful not because anyone really will work hard all week for an ice cream cone or an apple. It is powerful because it says, "We know you are having a rough week, and we appreciate all you do for us." It is powerful because it symbolizes a more powerful motivator, and that is perhaps the most important role reward-oriented recognition can play in the workplace today.