Avoiding Common Organizational Demotivators

By Bob Nelson

Managers recognize the wrong people and recognize people for the wrong things; the chosen awards can turn out to be meaningless or even insulting to those who receive them; and recognition tools and programs can be ignored altogether. Here are some of the most common demotivators that can be inadvertently built into an employee recognition program:

  • Unclear expectations: Sometimes, due to poor design, planning, or communication, employees simply don’t know what to expect from the recognition program. They don’t know what their roles and responsibilities are, or what is supposed to happen during the program. This uncertainty makes them feel anxious and insecure (not the ideal conditions for a program that is supposed to be motivating). The solution, of course, is to make sure that expectations are very clear and unambiguous.

  • Unnecessary rules: Recognition programs are sometimes so full of rules and guidelines that employees perceive them as being just more bureaucracy. Keep recognition programs simple.

  • Lack of follow-up: Nothing’s more demotivating than expecting a positive outcome and not getting it. Too many recognition programs make promises that cannot be kept, at least not in a timely fashion. Promise only what you can deliver and make sure your initiative delivers on all promises.

  • Constant change: Change is particularly demotivating when employees perceive that the rules keep changing. When you change recognition programs, make sure that you are making them better (such as adding new recognition opportunities) and not simply changing the rules to the organization’s advantage (such as making it more difficult for people to attain existing recognition levels). If you do need to raise the bar to address recognition inflation (when more staff keep reaching the goals), for example, consult with employees and explain the necessity of the change.

  • Unfairness: If employees view recognition in your organization as unfair, your entire recognition program might be in serious jeopardy. Organizational recognition is particularly vulnerable to this concern, since the recognition criteria in one area of the organization could differ from the recognition criteria in another area. Don’t think that employees don’t compare — they do! The antidote: Keep the perception of fairness in mind while you are designing the program and keep track of any recognition disparities in different areas of the organization.

  • Hypocrisy: Nothing is more demotivating than managers who say one thing and do another. Many recognition initiatives have been sabotaged by inconsistencies between talk and walk. There is no quick fix for hypocrisy. The countermeasure is to make executives aware of this pitfall and to monitor employee feedback that may indicate whether hypocrisy is still a problem. Then provide feedback to those who may be inadvertently sending the wrong messages.

  • Rewarding poor performance: If employees see that poor performers are being recognized, the program (and whoever put it into place) will lose credibility. Recognition should always be earned. Never recognize those who don’t deserve recognition!

  • Management invisibility: Too often, senior managers are visible during the initial launch of the recognition initiative but then disappear! This makes employees believe that the program is not really important to the organization and is, therefore, not deserving of their efforts or attention. Keeping a recognition initiative healthy requires continual management visibility. Senior managers should have specific roles to play in a recognition program (such as in presenting recognition to recipients) so that they will remain a visible part of it.