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In Search of Recognition: Part II

In the first installment of this series, I discussed the confusion and contradictions that surround the word recognition, as it is used to survey employee job satisfaction. It seems that employees interpret the word differently than management. Organizations are spending a lot of money and time—throwing a lot of resources at increasing employee recognition because surveys indicate that employees feel they are not being recognized commensurate with their contribution.

Part of management’s solution is to increase the frequency of verbal praise employees receive. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that verbal praise—positive comments by managers and supervisors about employee work efforts, is not perceived by employees to convey genuine “valuing” by the organization. Positive comments about job performance—verbal positive reinforcement—are not fulfilling the employees’ need for recognition.

I believe that employees interpret “recognition” in the context of survey questions as a question about whether they feel their employer values their contribution to the organization. It is possible that some employees feel recognized by the distribution of specialty goods contingent upon performance, or by positive supervisory comments. But, it is more likely that employees define recognition as the feeling that they are valued and respected. In my view, recognition is a value expressed to employees through leader and management verbal behavior, through organizational practices, decisions, and policies, and through the signals of equality that empowerment and participation provide.

Leaders and managers appear to believe that employee survey responses that report the need for “recognition,” mean that employees want some form of tangible reward for their work—something over and above their salary or hourly wage. As I pointed out in Part I, since the word recognition is not clearly defined in survey questions, we are left to make assumptions about what employees want.

In response to the ambiguity and uncertainty about what is meant by “recognition,” many organizations inundate employees with celebratory lunches, caps, shirts, logoed specialty items, plaques, and announcements. Sometimes they are contingent upon performance effort above and beyond, but in most cases they are based on marginal value-added performance. Leaders are trying to find opportunities to give employees tangible and symbolic assurance that they are appreciated. The real solution may be less expensive, but more difficult to deliver.

Recognition is performance information that flows…naturally.

The occasional "good job" supervisory comment does not provide employees with a sense of value. Employees feel truly recognized, they feel their contribution is being genuinely acknowledged, when their supervisor or manager regularly talks to them about their work; most of us feel there is a direct relationship between the attention our job performance receives and its importance.

Canned, off-the-shelf performance improvement programs employ strategies and tactics designed to get employees to perform at higher levels. The recent emphasis on coaching and facilitation is based on the idea of artfully discussing work behavior in a manner that elicits a "motivational" outcome in employee performance.

Management training classes often attempt to instruct managers to do or say things that increase employee effort. These tactics are usually perceived by employees to be manipulative. Everyone has heard the jokes about “charm school” that await managers and supervisor returning from recent training workshops. Employees perceive new supervisory behavior to be scripted and therefore inherently condescending. Supervisors are discouraged by the responses they receive as they attempt to employ new ways of dealing with their subordinates. Wouldn't it be easier for supervisors and managers to have casual discussions about work with their employees?

In a normal work discussion, employee behaviors that add value can be highlighted and improvement opportunities can be diplomatically presented. In this context, comments about an employee’s performance are not perceived as part of some sinister supervisory agenda and therefore have a positive impact on employee performance. A general discussion of the day’s work provides a supervisor with a non-threatening opportunity to both reinforce discretionary behavior and provide corrective feedback.

Employees feel “recognized” in a genuine sense when their contribution is revealed during the flow of a normal work discussion. This type of performance dialogue acknowledges the employee’s contribution and validates their work as valued—without manipulative overtones.

Recognition is involvement

Involving employees in problem-solving and decision-making adds to the perception that they are valued. Asking employees their opinions, asking them to help solve problems or to help implement improvement strategies, giving them opportunities to learn provides them with the feeling they are partners in the organization. The empowerment provided through participation in small group problem solving helps minimize the status issues of traditional organizational hierarchies.

Many organizations try to communicate respect to their employees by handing out snappy titles and business cards; the realities of unequal status are not erased by these kinds of superficial attempts to manage perception. If leaders do not value their employees, then calling them "associates" – just like scripted praise, merchandise and clichéd mission statements – will not camouflage reality.

Employees feel recognized and valued when they are talked-to and listened-to with respect

Some supervisors are not suited to manage other people; nevertheless eccentric personalities continue to be promoted to management careers. Often, individuals who have been able to succeed through intimidation – those whose employees will perform to any standard to avoid having to "talk" with their boss – are all too numerous in the management ranks.

Much of the uncontrollable turnover in business and industry is created by the inappropriate behavior of supervisors and managers whose interpersonal behavior makes their employees feel disrespected or devalued. No amount of 'touchy-feely' language in annual statements, brochures, mission statements and customer commitments can compensate for poor manager interpersonal skills.

Training is often used to help managers and supervisors who are having "people problems," but the real problem lies in the assumption that managing employee perceptions is more important than honest dialogs and genuine relationships. Subsequently, supervisors are taught scripted interaction strategies to influence their relationship with employees and their credibility slips even further.

Employees feel recognized when treated as individuals

The rules, policies, regulations, and procedures that are required to manage a large organization can cause employees to feel like cogs in a machine. Bureaucracies are also notorious for producing marginal performance through the indifference created by rule-driven cultures.

There is a direct relationship between the company's responsiveness to individual needs and the potential for that organization to engage an employee’s motivation to perform.

To truly recognize an employee, the organization must be flexible, supportive, and responsive to individual needs. One cannot feel recognized as an individual when management shows indifference to personal needs by automatically quoting "company policy."

The Recognition solution

Leaders are beginning to understand that to attract and retain the best employees they have to develop honest relationships with them. Many leaders are beginning to realize that homilies, slogans, canned praise and specialty merchandise are a superficial approach to satisfying the human need to be valued.

Employees feel recognized when − as an outcome of how they are treated by the organization− they consider themselves as partners. They have real relationship with their supervisor—a relationship that allows genuine information about their contribution to flow from normal work discussions and work documentation.

Recognition also emerges as a result of providing employees with career paths, opportunity, promotions, equitable pay, safe working conditions, and challenging work—in short, a nurturing work environment.

When employees ask for recognition, they are asking for no more than their employers expect for themselves: We all want to be talked-to respectfully--listened-to respectfully; we want to know where we stand through frequent work discussions that highlight our value and our opportunities for improvement; we want our experience and expertise to be honored by being allowed to participate in change and improvement efforts; we want individual consideration when our performance record recommends our past commitment and contribution.