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.
To try to fill the recognition gap, American companies spend in excess of $100 billion every year on merchandise, awards, and cash rewards - all accompanied by fulsome supervisory praise – in the belief that these incentives make their employees feel wanted and respected.
But mysteriously, after all this time, surveys continue to reflect employee dissatisfaction with the "recognition" they are receiving.
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 felt they had received no recognition on the job last year.
So are employee recognition programs ineffective, or is there disagreement between what employers define as recognition and how employees perceive it?
According to the 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.
Employers clearly seem convinced that the delivery of these tangible rewards achieves the key objective of creating a "positive work environment." Yet still survey after survey finds that up to seven out of 10 of employees are marginally or actively unengaged.
This "recognition gap" exists because when employees ask for recognition, they are expressing the need for something much more complex than a cheap gilded plaque or a service pin that thanks them for several years on the job.
To employees, the real meaning of the word recognition refers to the presence of systems and practices that reaffirm their value to the organization. But its misinterpretation as meaning "attention" has led to the widespread misdirection and waste of billions of dollars-worth of organizational resources.
Part of the problem is that all those surveys do not actually define what they mean by recognition. They seem to assume that it means the same thing to everyone. And this also illuminates a bigger issue: communications problems frequently hinge on the differences between individual interpretations of the meaning and use of certain words.
While it may seem familiar, the word recognition carries a constellation of potential meanings So if I was an employer and several thousand of my employees said in a survey that they are dissatisfied due to lack of recognition, I would like to know exactly what they meant before I threw billions of dollars at the problem.
But instead, American business leaders continue to commit an enormous amount of time, energy, and money to make employees feel recognized without taking the time to discover what this actually means.
In my 30 years as a management consultant, I observed firsthand the negative effects of processes that reduced recognition to a series of robotic activities. This convinced me that the crucial step in addressing the lack of recognition in the work force is to listen to what employees who were on the receiving end of these misplaced processes have to say.
Praise is not recognition
The practice of using praise to meet an employee's need for recognition is neat and tidy – but wrong. Praising employees for work behavior or results leads primarily to embarrassment, distrust, and poor management/employee relations.
Employees sense the manipulation behind constructed positive comments and feel controlled and devalued by the experience. Supervisors and managers feel the same discomfort but also feel pressured (even threatened) by managers and consultants to either compliment their employees for good work – or else.
As a consultant, I presided over hundreds of recognition initiatives in which supervisors and managers were instructed to praise their employees for making small performance improvements. Then we interviewed the employees – only to find that they still did not feel recognized for their work despite this concerted praise from above.
Merchandise is not recognition
Do we really think that when employees tell us they want recognition, they are expressing a desire for awards, jackets, cups, hats or pens?
Merchandise does nothing to give individuals a sense of value and meaning about their jobs. In fact, it does the opposite: it trivializes their efforts and contributions to the organization.
The ongoing theater of ceremonious appreciation is rejected by everyone involved - except the reward and recognition industry itself. Or course, on occasion, an employee may enjoy receiving a coffee mug, but most of the time the whole farce is a misguided attempt to apply an inappropriate solution to a poorly defined problem.
Money is not recognition
Money may be our society's scorecard, but it is no substitute for dignity, respectful treatment, and the sense of value that accompanies them.
However loud the argument that money is the most desirable form of recognition and the solution to all performance problems, the fact remains that many people who are well-compensated still feel that they are trading their self-respect for cash.
Consequently, we see top executives bailing out of lucrative positions - not for higher income, but for more input, respect, and freedom.
Most people would take a cut in pay to work in a company where they feel appreciated, involved, and supported, but this is not a trade-off. People should be well-compensated for their contributions as well as receive respect and support - and they know when they are being shortchanged.
Recognition is partnering
The occasional "good job" is never enough to satisfy employees' sense of value. Most employees feel recognized only when their supervisor or manager talks to them about their work during productive discussions that convey mutual respect.
Canned, off-the-shelf performance improvement programs always emphasize strategies and tactics designed to get employees to perform. Even the recent emphasis on coaching and facilitation is based on the idea of artfully applying a set of skills to elicit some "motivational" outcome in employees.
As a result, managers treat employees as objects of manipulation and control. These interactions are inherently condescending - and employees know it.
So wouldn't it be much easier for supervisors and managers to have productive discussions about work with their employees than to continually strive to execute a contrived reward agenda?
In the natural flow of these discussion, employee performance feedback evolves. Whether this is positive or negative is not defined by the intentions of the supervisor; valid feedback is data-based information about performance. If a person has done something that improved an outcome, this will surface during a discussion of the work. If there is a problem, frequent and timely interactions allow people to take corrective action.
Because people think of recognition as having their value authenticated by someone who knows their job, this type of performance dialogue by its very nature acknowledges employee contribution and validates the work as meaningful.
Recognition is involvement.
It is equally the case that involving people in problem-solving and decision-making adds to their sense of value and worth.
Asking employees their opinions, asking them to help solve problems or implement improvement and providing them with opportunities to discuss important decisions goes a long way towards minimizing the social distinction of the management hierarchy.
But many organizations still don't get it. Instead, they try to persuade employees that they are respected by simply handing out snappy titles and business cards. But the realities of status are not mitigated by slogans that only profess equality.
If leaders do not value their employees, then calling them 'associates' – just like canned praise, cheap merchandise and clichéd mission statements - cannot camouflage that reality.
Recognition is respect.
Some people are just ill-suited to managing others but more often they are misdirected by dysfunctional leadership and antiquated practices.
Nevertheless, eccentric personalities do seem to gravitate to management careers. 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 controllable turnover in business and industry is created by the inappropriate behavior of supervisors and managers who don't understand that the word recognition means respectful treatment.
No amount of 'touchy-feely' language in annual statements, brochures, mission statements and customer commitments can circumvent the necessity to hold executives, managers, and supervisors accountable for treating employees with compassion, empathy, and dignity. Words mean nothing when actions negate them.
Training is often used to try to minimize the deficits of managers and supervisors who are having "people problems," but the real problem lies in the assumption that managing employee perceptions (a shell game) is more important than honest dialogue and genuine relationships. So supervisors are taught yet another strategy to motivate or praise employees and their credibility slips even further.
Recognition enables individualism
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 employees.
To truly recognize an employee, the organization must be flexible, supportive, and responsive to individual special circumstances. One cannot feel recognized as an individual when management shows indifference to legitimate issues and needs by automatically quoting "company policy."
The Recognition solution
Many organizations are beginning to understand that to attract and retain the best employees they have to develop honest relationships with them. Some even realize that homilies, slogans, canned praise and trinkets only promote a superficial approach to satisfying the human need to be valued.
To elicit the highest level of performance from their employees means addressing the issues of involvement, respect, support, and responsiveness.
Employees feel recognized when − as an outcome of how they are treated by the organization− they consider themselves as partners. Recognition comes as a result of providing employees with career paths, opportunity, promotions, equitable pay, safe working conditions, and challenging work.
So when employees ask for recognition, they are asking for no more than their employers expect for themselves: honest communications, respectful treatment, and acknowledgement that they are people with feelings, personal lives, and the desire to truly contribute to the company.