Making Mistakes at Organizational Recognition

By Bob Nelson

Because of their scope and complexity, organizational recognition efforts have the greatest likelihood to go awry. Following are common problems that arise in organizational recognition efforts.

Rushing to recognition

Although delaying recognition of individuals can cause problems, too little planning when executing organizational-level recognition is also a no-no. If you hurried to launch your recognition program only to have it fall flat, you shouldn’t assume that the lack of success means your idea was a bad one. Perhaps you simply needed more preparation.

Some action-oriented companies tend to take a ready-fire-aim approach to planning, and more than a few of them have rushed to roll out initiatives but neglected one or more important components. The result? The initiative fails. Where a systematic plan is highly desirable for individual and team recognition, it is absolutely essential for organizational recognition. Big ideas sometimes require big planning and careful thought and follow-through.

Assuming that one size fits all

Giving everyone the same reward seems like the ultimate in fairness, right? So why are your employees upset? Well, another basic mistake managers make is to provide — out of a false sense of fairness — the exact same recognition or reward to every employee. Few things are as unfair as the equal treatment of unequals.

You need to adjust the recognition you use to the individual preferences of those you are trying to motivate. And as the number of people you want to recognize increases, the possibilities for what you can do also should increase as well.

People (and their accomplishments) vary in many ways, and the best forms of recognition and rewards need to vary as well. What is rewarding to one person could actually be demeaning to another. Ideally you want to customize recognition to the people who will receive it and match the reward to what those recipients most value.

Younger employees, for example, often want to be highly engaged and passionate about their work or to have greater social interaction at work. Give them leeway and the chance to pursue their ideas and learn new skills. Challenge them with interesting work or give them full responsibility to take control of a situation.

Losing freshness and relevance

If you’ve had the same recognition program in place for years (even if it’s a good one), but your employees don’t seem excited about it anymore, the program might be past its use-by date. You can’t expect a recognition program to remain effective forever. The longer the program has existed, the greater the chance that it will become stale. This is often the fate of years-of-service awards and employee-of-the-month programs.

Even the best programs need to be reevaluated and renewed from time to time — usually sooner rather than later. As a general rule, the shelf life of a typical recognition program today is closer to 12 weeks than 12 years, so if you’re having problems and haven’t reassessed your program in some time, now’s the time. Find out what’s working and what’s not and adjust the program accordingly.

Having priorities that are confusing

It’s amazing how many organizations send confusing and conflicting messages in their recognition practices and systems. Without realizing it, mixed messages make it unclear just what achievement warrants recognition, and employees feel confused rather than guided. “Maximize production!” “Quality is job one!” “Give customers your complete attention!” “Reduce customer contact time!” “Increase long-term profits!” “Reduce costs immediately!” “Work faster!” “Work safer!” “Be innovative!” “Don’t make mistakes!”

If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. In these situations, employees sense that management is confused about what it really wants. When performance expectations are unclear, employees waste a tremendous amount of energy trying to figure out what is really expected, and individuals can end up working at cross purposes.

Recognizing subjectively

Too often, managers give recognition based on subjective impressions, which are notoriously inaccurate. Subjective recognition is uneven at best, and wrong and unfair at its worst.

One thing to be aware of is the tendency to recognize employees based on a halo effect: Once you perceive certain people to be top performers, you always perceive them as top performers who can do no wrong. Conversely, a horns effect often exists around employees whom you perceive to be somehow inadequate. When you give (or withhold) recognition due to one of the these effects, recognition becomes more of a demotivating influence than a motivating one.

To avoid these pitfalls, use carefully defined, objective criteria when crafting your recognition. Checklists can be helpful to identify behaviors and results that are worthy of recognition. The tendency of supervisors to give some people more recognition than others can also be counteracted by using a recognition log, which helps keep track of who is receiving recognition and how often. This log is also a valuable feedback device for the supervisor or manager who wants to improve the quality (and quantity) of his or her recognition giving.

Breeding an entitlement culture

You try to give recognition all the time, but someone always finds something to criticize! What gives? A common problem when you do recognition just to be nice is that it becomes expected, leading to a culture of entitlement. For example, if you bring in donuts on one Friday to be nice and the following Friday you bring in donuts again, on the third Friday (and perhaps subsequent Fridays) the donuts will be expected.

Recognition should be special, not routine. Too often, recognition becomes a general activity, such as a department or company celebration and not a specific form of thanks. When recognition is routinely expected, it loses its value and its authenticity. Entitlements that everyone receives (such as employee benefits) are fine. Just don’t make recognition one of those!

Too much recognition is almost as bad as too little recognition, especially when it is not tied to performance. If you come to recognize everything, it has the same impact as if you recognize nothing. Recognition should be viewed as a valuable organizational resource — and should be used as such. Remember, recognition is a strategic business resource, not simply a form of psychological compensation.

Doing too much or too little

Sometimes recognition is too small or too large. Telling someone in the hallway that she did a nice job at the completion of a two-year project can be as inappropriate as giving a cruise to the newest employee-of-the-month. Recognition accompanied by a large monetary payment can easily be overwhelmed by the reward itself.

Giving too much recognition can make the activity less meaningful. Giving too little recognition undermines the performance you were trying to encourage and the relationship between the provider and the recipient. So how do you determine the right amount of recognition? This is one of the challenges of recognition that makes it a bit of an art, refined by experience over time. By trying to learn what worked or what did not as you use recognition, you can assess whether your recognition was effective or was too little or too much, and then adjust accordingly.

It is very important to differentiate recognition from rewards. Recognition is positive reinforcement for something well done. A reward is something tangible that often accompanies recognition. Rewards are often used as a proxy for recognition and, too often, rewards are given to employees without sufficient recognition.

Zero-sum recognition

In zero-sum games, in order for somebody to win, somebody else must lose. Although zero-sum games might make sense in competitive sports, they don’t make sense in the collaborative workplaces of today. There needn’t be any losers in a positive work environment. Singling out one outstanding employee at the expense of others is problematic.

Competitive recognition can be detrimental to an organization’s goals, and it sends the wrong messages about teamwork — that it isn’t important. When establishing an organizational recognition program, every employee should be able to win. This doesn’t mean that rewards shouldn’t be earned; they should. But why can’t a lot of employees be employees of the month? Isn’t that what organizations ought to be striving for? Even better, how about celebrating many employees who have excelled — consider them “employees of the moment”! Avoid having one employee’s gain be another employee’s loss; instead set objective recognition criteria in which everyone who meets the standard is recognized.

Untimely recognition

Delay is the enemy of recognition. One of the challenges of organizational recognition is how to keep it streamlined and nonbureaucratic so that people can receive timely recognition. If every form of recognition needs management approval, many — if not most — recognition opportunities will be missed.

Avoid recognition decisions that have to go through level after level of approvals, and always allow some forms of recognition, such as an on-the-spot award or a traveling trophy, that require no additional levels of approval. Or use a mix of recognition in which some forms are spontaneous while others are more formal and planned.