Employee Recognition that Actually Means Something

Ok. I’m about to say something that might (or might not) be considered controversial. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

We are becoming a culture in which reflexive praise for doing the right thing (even sometimes the not-so-right thing) is commonplace. A growing number of people – you know them, I know them – expect a reward for simply showing up and doing what they were hired to do. In some cases, the expectation of a reward is there even if they aren’t doing what they were hired to do.

Before you accuse me of pointing a finger at our Millennials, you should know that I think Millennials rock and are largely misunderstood. The millennial generation is often labeled as having a poor work ethic, but I believe nothing could be further from the truth. What I’m talking about is a multi-generational cultural shift towards the expectation of routine social praise for extraordinary achievement that’s not so extraordinary.

This shift presents quite the challenge for leaders tasked with employee retention.

How, exactly, do you separate out extraordinary achievement from expected achievement?

Also, when should recognition and reward be linked? Because aren’t there times when a simple “thank you” or “great job” is reward enough?

In many cases, financial reward for a job well done is the right call. However, when recognition is always followed by financial reward, it can backfire. Over time, this approach can train employees to put in the level of effort akin to the dollar amount of the expected reward – producing a cultural attitude that can actually be demotivating.

Most of us are motivated by more than money. We want to feel like we are contributing something – that we are partners in a shared mission to contribute something valuable to the world. When our efforts are constantly reduced to a Starbucks card or lunch with the boss, we can start to feel as if our work is worth nothing more than that small monetary reward.

Don’t misunderstand. Unless you’re managing a group of volunteers, financial reward is one of the primary reasons your staff shows up to work every day. Of course it is. But, it’s not the equivalent of recognition. This is an important distinction. We need more than reflexive affirmation. We need to feel valuable.

So, what is an effective approach towards staff recognition?

Pay attention to what’s happening right now. There is so much value in being noticed and seen, isn’t there? Consider any area of life – family, work, social groups – and you will find people who feel largely unnoticed. Just by opening our eyes and letting our people know that we know what they do is important can go a long way. This is actually the exact opposite of reflexive praise. It requires us to be present, listen to our people attentively, and consciously articulate what we notice and why it’s important.

Avoid generic recognition. Recognition is most effective when it’s offered within a specific context. Telling someone that they “do great work” is much different than saying something like, “The editing you did on that proposal made a huge difference in getting it accepted. Thanks for doing such great work.”

Be appropriate and authentic. This is kind of like the boy who cried wolf. If you exclaim “excellent job!” to everyone about everything, your words are going to loose their value pretty quickly. Recognition should be given in proportion to effort and results. It’s also important that you actually mean it. Authenticity is one of the issues with automatic reward systems – they remove a certain amount of genuineness. It’s kind of like receiving a birthday gift from your spouse, only to learn that the gift was a result of an automated alert prompting their assistant to “order something nice.” That special gift is suddenly not so special.

Treat people as if they have value. Presumably every person on your staff is there for a reason – to get important stuff done. But, all of us want to feel like we are more than replaceable tools in the shed. What’s more, we generally know when we’re valued, and have a good idea of our value to the organization. Monetary rewards can twist our concept of value, linking it to cash when it should be attached a valuable contribution to a shared goal or purpose. Again, there are absolutely times when money is an appropriate reward. But, it’s not the only – or even the most effective – motivator. Treat your staff as valued team members, not as numbers.

I’d like to hear what’s on your mind. Please leave a comment to let me know what recognition means to you. How is your organization handling recognition successfully? What are the challenges?

About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.

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