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Ruining Recognition

It’s hard to imagine that in the workplace something as constructive, positive, and uplifting as recognition could go wrong. After all, it’s free. And research consistently points to how effectively appreciation builds morale, engagement, and bottom-line results. But each and every day, well-meaning managers inadvertently ruin it.

Last week I worked with two managers whose mindsets – while diametrically opposed – were each responsible for ruining recognition… but in very different ways.

The first was a mid-level manager at a manufacturing and sales facility. He heads a large department charged with reducing costs, increasing output, and expanding sales. Staff is working overtime, engaging in improvement committees, and experimenting with a range of new practices. It’s an environment that’s begging for a little recognition… right?

But this manager explained that he’s made a conscious decision not to start recognizing his people. He wants to be fair and is afraid that with such a large staff and so many hard workers, he might accidentally overlook an employee who is doing noteworthy work, hurt someone’s feelings, and undermine morale. So, he chooses to keep his recognition to himself.

Later in the week, I met a nursing supervisor with a group of twelve reporting to her. A real-believer in the power of recognition, she’s created her own team award. A lovely glass star passes from recipient to recipient in her area. During the first huddle of each month, she makes a point of highlighting one employee. She explained that she’s developed a spreadsheet to keep track of who’s received the star when… so she can make sure that everyone gets it at some point during the year. She wonders why this recognition rotation isn’t leading to improved results. (Little does she know that her team probably takes bets on who’s ‘up’ next.)

These contrasting examples left me wondering if we all need to worry less about ‘fairness’ and more about shining the light on work that makes a difference. Withholding recognition or wringing all meaning from it by meticulously ensuring that it’s spread absolutely evenly across the team undermines the power of recognition and the possibilities it holds.

Rather than concerning ourselves with ‘fairness’, perhaps we should concern ourselves with:

  • Who is doing stand-out work?
  • What specific behaviors support the business strategy?
  • Who is making a real difference to co-workers, the department and/or organization as a whole?
  • What are customers appreciating about the team’s work?
  • What kinds of skills and actions are required to meet goals and achieve results?

Questions like these focus on what matters most to the organization while promoting genuine and results-producing recognition. They allow managers to use recognition as a strategic tool to support the business.

So, if drawing attention to exemplary performance that drives results is unfair, then by all means, be unfair. And while you’re being unfair, also make sure to:

  • Be brief, concrete, and specific.
  • Let others know not just what you appreciate but also why you appreciate it. Connect the dots between what you’re recognizing and why it’s important.
  • Share the recognition as soon after the positive behavior as possible.
  • Be sincere. Recognition need not be grand or flowery. An authentic expression of appreciation has powerful and long-term effects.

Leaders must challenge their definitions of ‘fairness’ with regard to recognition. It’s NOT fair to withhold positive comments about employee performance. It’s NOT fair to conceal what you value most in terms of your team’s behaviors or actions. And it’s certainly NOT fair to fail to embrace a leadership practice that can directly affect the bottom line.

So, the next time you’re tempted to be ‘fair’ by staying silent or you’re tempted to start acting like a kids’ soccer coach with trophies for everyone on the team… remember that ruining recognition isn’t fair.

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