Unlearning Recognition

By Jeremy Salter.

This post was prompted by a recent conversation that I had with a friend about ways he could improve the effectiveness of his organisation’s employee recognition program.

I have been involved in the design and delivery of employee recognition programs for nearly 14 years. I remain fascinated that such a simple act can have such a profound impact on a person’s motivation and performance at work.

Over this time attitudes have changed. Nowadays my conversations with organisations focus more on ways to recognise than the need to recognise. Technology has helped. Employee recognition is more social, mobile, integrated and effective.

Despite this, employee recognition remains, as Dan Pink noted, one of the most effective but least utilised motivational tools in the organisation today. This contrasts starkly with our experience of recognition outside of work where we like, follow, share, recommend, comment and post with ease.

Our desire to be recognised and willingness to recognise each other outside of work has fuelled the adoption of new technologies and the growth of new organisations. So why does employee recognition keep cropping up as an under-performing driver of engagement in countless employee surveys.

I used to think that we had somehow lost the ability to recognise each other at work. I now think many of us over a certain age are simply having to unlearn what previous employers have taught us about recognition.

Within the command and control cultures of many of yesterday’s organisations recognition was treated as a scare resource. A top down tool used by managers to reward rather than encourage. Access was controlled, recognitions approved.

Even though command and control cultures are a thing of the past their influence remains. It was evident in my friend’s comments when we spoke about ways to rekindle his organisation’s employee recognition program.

My friend believed their current program suffered from a lack of controls that allowed employees to recognise each other for things ‘they are paid to do’. When I asked why this was a problem he explained that it diminished the value of recognition.

As I believe the real value of recognition is its ability to encourage rather than reward behaviours we agreed to disagree. I did however wonder how my friend’s approach to recognition would play out for younger members of his team who hadn’t been taught not to expect recognition.

Organisations that treat recognition as a reward will not realise its true potential. Luckily younger employees don’t have to unlearn recognition. I doubt many even view it as a benefit or a reward. They do however expect it and already use it outside of work to communicate, connect, encourage and share.

Those of us who need to unlearn recognition could learn a lot from them.

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