Positive Reinforcement: The Solution to the Recognition Paradox

For the last three decades, employee surveys have repeatedly pointed to recognition as being one of the critical ingredients in employee satisfaction, morale, motivation, and retention.

Rewards and recognition practices-- have reached an iconic status as the preferred means of motivating human performance. In light of the time and resources dedicated to these methods, it seems appropriate to examine the effects of these practices processes with the same lens we apply to other organizational systems. If they have a positive effect on employee engagement and discretionary effort, then the ROI will be validated and the investment of organizational resources they receive will be substantiated.

To try and fulfill their employees' need for recognition, American companies spend in excess of $100 billion every year on merchandise, awards, and cash rewards. In addition, millions of dollars are spent on management development in an attempt to teach managers and supervisors how to use verbal positive reinforcement to "recognize" employee improvement and value added behavior. It is believed that positive words about job performance will make their employees feel wanted and respected.

But mysteriously, after these efforts, surveys continue to reflect employee dissatisfaction with the "recognition" they are receiving. Having trained several thousand supervisors in methods of positive reinforcement, I can say with some confidence that the traditional methods of training supervisors to positively reinforce their employees are flawed. They are over-simplified, without any regard for the relationship history that strengthens or dilutes the value of a supervisor’s attempts to reinforce an employee.

The Recognition Paradox

A recent study by Maritz, Inc reveals the chaos that prevails in the world of recognition:

In addition, even though 70 percent of employees receive verbal praise – the most prevalent form of employee recognition – only 49 percent of them want it; and 21percent of those who actually want verbal praise still aren’t getting it from their companies.

According to the 2005 Employee Recognition Survey conducted by WorldatWork and the National Association for Employee Recognition, nine out of 10 of the 614 organizations surveyed had an active employee recognition program; yet when the Gallup Organization surveyed some four million workers on the topics of recognition and praise, they found that two thirds of those surveyed felt they had received no recognition on the job in the last year.

Employers clearly seem convinced that the delivery of these tangible rewards achieves the key objective of fulfilling their employees’ need for recognition, yet another contradictory survey finding reports that up to seven out of 10 of employees are marginally or actively disengaged from their work.

So, are employee recognition programs ineffective, or is there disagreement between what employers define as recognition and how employees define it? Surveys do not actually define what is meant by the word recognition prior to asking survey questions about that topic. They use the word in the survey without clarifying its meaning. Apparently, those who create these surveys assume that it means the same thing to everyone.

According to one employee recognition survey, eight out of 10 (81 per cent) organizations with recognition programs "recognized" employees with certificates or plaques. Almost six out of 10 (57 per cent) gave away company merchandise and gift certificates, more than four out of 10 (44 per cent) handed out jewelry and more than a third (38 per cent) office accessories.

The word recognition carries a constellation of potential meanings, depending on the context of its use. If I was an employer and several thousand of my employees said in a survey that they were dissatisfied due to a lack of recognition, I would like to know exactly what that response meant before I threw money and solution strategies at the problem.

When survey data reports employee dissatisfaction because of insufficient recognition, American business leaders commit enormous amounts of time, energy, and money to recognition strategies. The ambiguity that surrounds the meaning of the word raises some questions about exactly what the surveyed employees are dissatisfied with. Management should pinpoint precisely what this word actually means - what is it that employee are asking for?

Recognition is More Complex Than We Thought

The practice of using praise (over-simplified, impersonal statements of approval) appears to be an easy solution to employee requests for recognition. Unfortunately, praising employees for work behavior or results quite often leads to employee embarrassment, distrust, and poor management/employee relations.

A poll by Maritz Research, found the following:

At the same time, only 43 percent of employees “agree” or “strongly agree” that they are consistently recognized for their performance in ways that are meaningful to them.

The same poll found that there was 6 distinct “predispositions” toward various forms of recognition.Categorizing people into stereotypical “types,” is questionable psychology, and certainly will not stand the test of scientific rigor, but it throws more fuel on the flames of instability surrounding recognition strategies.

Employees report sensing management intentions behind positive comments as attempts to control them, even if the supervisors say that they are only attempting to appropriately acknowledge the employee's effort. Employees also report feeling uncomfortable and devalued by the experience. Supervisors and managers report the same discomfort, but feel pressured by leadership to positively reinforce their employees for good work.The problem is that proper training and coaching has not prepared them to do this in a credible way.

In my view, a "recognition gap" exists because the survey data present contradictory findings that indicate a discrepancy between the amount of recognition organizations report delivering, and the level of recognition employees report receiving. Apparently, when employees ask for recognition, they are expressing the need for something they are not getting. It may be that from the employee’s perspective, recognition refers to positive information about their work activity — information about their performance that is not limited to management-driven reward and recognition events. 

It is my suspicion, that employee’s perceive themselves to be appropriately recognized only when they experience performance feedback within the context of a meaningful, give-and-take dialog about their work. I believe employees are more comfortable with information about their performance that evolves during performance discussions unmediated by management intentions to recognize the employee’s efforts—by some thinly disguised agenda to “motivate” them to work harder. 

The positive reinforcement of an employee should not be an isolated transaction or a scripted obligation; there is no credibility in this type of maneuver.The mechanistic positive reinforcement that accompanied the “command and control” management model is antiquated.Today’s workforce wants a relationship with their supervisor—a respectful, cooperative interactivity in the service of the organizations objective.The days of the paternalistic “good job,” are over.

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