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Does Your Recognition Program ‘Recognize’ or ‘Appreciate’?

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I recently visited a client who is working diligently through an organization-wide performance improvement initiative which required that a set of focused workgroups be established and maintained over the life of the initiative.

These groups are intended to:

  • serve as a communication vehicle for initiative information back into the organization
  • provide employees with a way to send messages back to the initiative’s core planning group and to leadership
  • enable cross-functional collaboration
  • boost morale, motivation and engagement overall
  • provide as a focal point for recognition of outstanding effort, related to the initiative’s goals and activities

While both employees and leaders indicated that the workgroups continue to serve an important purpose and are essentially still high-functioning, some concern was expressed about the aspect of the workgroups as a forum for recognition.

The Original Intent of the Recognition Program

At the start of these workgroups, recognition was determined to be given to employees going above and beyond their regular responsibilities to further the goals of the performance improvement initiative.

Where Unintended Consequences Emerged

Over time, though, my client expressed that these concerns had emerged:

  1. the same people continue to be recognized
  2. some people have never been recognized
  3. cynicism has bubbled up within the meetings (and outside of them), in cases where someone received recognition for doing what colleagues perceived to be “just their job”
  4. some employees are recognized for doing something terrific, but it isn’t actually within their job duties (and the “regular duties” may be neglected)

Sorting Out What Had Shifted

My question to this client was,

“Is this an employee appreciation effort or an employee recognition effort?”

EMPLOYEE APPRECIATION may be intended to show gratitude for any number of behaviors, contributions, or even possibly for something done outside of work.

If the outcomes of such an effort are (for example) boosted engagement, morale, sense of community, then it may be appropriate – or important – to ensure that all group members are singled out and ‘appreciated’ at some point. Justification for being appreciated in the workgroup might look like the following:

  • always has a positive attitude
  • has great follow-through
  • has been struggling outside of work with ailing relative
  • just spent the past month mentoring a new teammate

EMPLOYEE RECOGNITION was originally designed to showcase behaviors that specifically demonstrated commitment and effort in reaching initiative outcomes.

Here, the criteria are critical to establish and maintain focus on.  “Egalitarianism” is NOT the goal. One might receive recognition for something like:

  • orienting a new manager/colleague to the initiative and its expectations of leaders
  • heading up a process redesign task force
  • taking an unpopular stance in the name of quality improvement or other change

So, what if the same people continue to be called out for this kind of performance? Is this a problem? If the goals are clear – and they pertain to more-than-average effort directed at specific goals, then whomever performs at that level should be recognized. And if this is the same person (or people) multiple times, so be it. [The hope would be, of course, that others would be inspired to also strive for higher performance by observing high performing colleagues.]

Recommendations to Any Organization with an Appreciation or Recognition Program

To change/lower the standard for the sole purpose of making others feel included, being “fair”, or not “causing conflict” within the groups is NOT the right fix.

Changing the standard should only be done in cooperation with the entire initiative, and should be done methodically and communicated broadly.

Responding to a desire to include probably isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself. . . it just should be decoupled from the recognition program.

Which are you running — an appreciation or a recognition program?

Ask yourself (or your leadership team) the following:

  1. What are the ultimate GOALS of the program/effort?
  2. What standards or criteria are in place for this program?
  3. How have the standards or criteria been communicated?
  4. Do the standards hold true -or – do we let them slip in order to meet some other interest?
  5. What other efforts/programs should be in place to meet those other (perhaps valid) interests and needs?

Remember . . . we typically DO what gets MEASURED or NOTICED. We are creatures of habit, always looking for patterns in behavior. We quickly adapt our own behavior and expectations according to the patterns we notice . . . sometimes, according to the unwritten rules.

Criteria and adherence to the program’s real goals should be taken very seriously and revisited periodically. Changing the criteria is not bad; changing adherence to the criteria IS.

A brain-friendly workplace tip:  it is anxiety-producing (absolutely crazy-making for some people) to detect a difference between an organization’s espoused values (“the talk”), and the organization’s behavior norms (“the walk”). This misalignment can be experienced as deception, hypocrisy, favoritism, or simply as confusion. Any of these are unfortunate energy and productivity sinks.

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