Identifying Individual Recognition Mistakes

By Bob Nelson

In many ways, one-on-one thanks is the most important form of recognition in the day-to-day working lives of employees because individual recognition is very personal and, thus, more meaningful to employees. You can give individual recognition to anyone at any time — you don’t need permission, have to submit a nomination to a committee, or get approval from top management. However, sometimes, individual recognition goes astray.

Following are some of the most common mistakes managers make when it comes to recognizing individuals. If your recognition is falling flat, check this list for possible causes.

Missing recognition opportunities

Probably the most common problem with individual recognition is ignoring or just missing opportunities to use it. The reasons include being too busy to acknowledge an employee who does a good job, believing that employees don’t need to be recognized, or thinking that giving positive feedback once a year in employees’ performance reviews is sufficient. Missed opportunities can especially be a problem for good performers, who managers feel must already know they are good because they’ve been told so in the past.

Recognition that’s not timely

Waiting too long to thank someone is almost as bad as completely missing an opportunity to recognize them altogether. The longer you wait to recognize someone, the smaller the recognition’s impact. After a certain point, delayed acknowledgement shows your employees just how out of touch you are with them and their accomplishments. They may even forget what they had done to warrant your appreciation! Conversely, they may remember all too well what they did to deserve recognition but, when you finally get around to delivering a thank you, view your effort as too little, too late.

Being insincere or mechanical

One of the hallmarks of effective recognition is sincerity. If you’re not being earnest with your praise, your employees can see right through it, and that’s probably why it isn’t working. Mechanical and superficial recognition can completely backfire. Recognition you deliver mechanically — you offer thanks without really thinking about it or walk around the office the same time each week to dole out boilerplate thanks — doesn’t seem believable. Instead of your efforts feeling genuine to your employees, they leave the impression that you are only going through the motions because it’s expected or you have a checklist item you want to mark off. Instead of doing the same stuff all the time, change your recognition activities up — and recognize from the heart!

Publicly recognizing private people

Does your overachieving employee seem to shun your recognition? Although, as a general rule, people value public praise, some people are uncomfortable with public recognition. Forcing public recognition on someone who does not want it is demotivating and can very well have negative ramifications.

You’ve probably also heard the rule to “recognize publicly, reprimand privately.” For certain, this approach is more effective and respectful. Public reprimands can be very demoralizing — and have the opposite effect of what you intend. The founder of one computer company publicly berated employees who ran behind schedule. The result? Other employees started hiding when they were running behind schedule or having trouble with a project — or they rushed to turn in less-than-perfect work.

Undercutting praise with criticism

If your recognition never seems to be good enough for your employees, maybe it’s because they don’t feel good enough, either. It’s very common for managers to immediately follow the thanks they give with a note of criticism: “You did a great job on that report, Betty, but I noticed quit a few typos in it,” for example. Doing so sends a confusing message. Are you pleased? Are you disappointed?

This approach undermines the positive impact of the recognition, and the employee is left thinking about the negative feedback you shared — or what a jerk you are! Save constructive feedback for a future developmental discussion and just focus on what the person did right for now!

Giving recognition that is not rewarding

Many times, well-intended managers defeat their best intentions by doing something that ends up being demotivating — or worse, even insulting — to the recipient. You can avoid this problem by simply asking the person what he or she would like as recognition, or running your idea by him or her in advance.

Overcompensating

If you’re reprimanded for how poorly you treat employees and then, in trying to make it better, you suddenly start thanking all your employees for everything they are doing, you could be overcompensating, which suffers the same fate as insincerity in that it lacks honesty and meaning.

Overcompensating can be made worse when the overcompensating manager then stops all recognition and returns to his or her former mean or indifferent self. This Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde approach to recognition confuses employees. It’s better that you start small in identifying a few truly deserving employees, recognizing them for a few things they’ve done well, and then sustain or build on that practice going forward.

Being manipulative

Some managers use recognition as a way to manipulate employees — for example, saying, “Gary, here are some movie passes for helping out yesterday — can you work late again tonight?” Manipulative managers lose credibility with their employees, who learn to not trust communication at face value and constantly look for the hidden agenda behind the recognition.

For recognition to work, it needs to be honest and sincere, with no expectation of a favor in return. Consider the employee who received a report back from her manager with glowing comments on it. She was upset when she later learned that her manager had not actually read the report, making his praise meaningless!