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Leadership Moments

Your Employees Crave Recognition. Why Are Most Managers So Stingy?

May 13, 2019

It is one of the biggest disconnects in business. People want recognition at work, and yet their managers hold back, for a whole host of reasons that don’t hold up once you unpack them. You’ll find a ton of smart insights about how to be better at recognition, and why it’s so important for creating a healthy corporate culture, in this interview with Joan Shafer, a colleague of mine at Merryck & Co., a senior leadership development and executive mentoring firm.

Q. How did your interest in the issue of recognition start?

A. Several years ago, I was having dinner with another consultant who worked in the world of culture and surveys, and as we talked, we realized that employees at almost all of our client companies were mentioning “employee recognition” as something they wanted to have more of in their culture. That led me to dig deeper and do more research in our database of employee surveys from hundreds of companies.

What I discovered was that recognition was the single most frequently mentioned word when employees were asked what values would help their company reach its potential. I was really surprised by this, and that started a research project of me interviewing people who took part in the surveys to ask them more precisely what they meant by the word recognition and what they were looking for.

“One of the impacts of recognition is that it helps eliminate doubt. We perform an action and we wonder, how did I do?”

There are different types of recognition, and even if you ask somebody how they would like to be recognized, oftentimes they don’t know until the particular moment arises. It depends on your individual needs and the doubts you have. Because one of the impacts of recognition is that it helps eliminate doubt. We perform an action and we wonder, how did I do? And when nobody says anything about it, we think, “Did I do okay? Was that good enough? Was it great?”

Q. One of the knocks against millennials that I’ve heard is that they want constant recognition. Did you find any generational differences in your research?

A. No. It’s across the board, all way up to the most senior levels. Everybody needs recognition. We want to know if we matter, how well we did, if our contribution had any meaning or significance.

Q. So what are the different kinds of recognition?

A. There are three kinds of feedback. One is recognition of ‘what’ I did. People really just want to be thanked. They don’t necessarily want a Starbucks coffee card. They want somebody to come up to them and say, “Thank you for putting in the time, effort and thought you put into that project, which resulted in X in terms of impact.” It’s about saying, I see the contribution you made and I appreciate you for it. It’s specific. It’s recognizing people for what they did and really saying “thank you.”

Second is giving people feedback on the “how” of what they did. They want to know what they did well and what they could do better next time. And the third type of recognition is about the “who” – telling someone why it’s important that they are on the team, and that “these are the qualities that you bring to our organization and this is your potential.”

Often we don’t see our own potential. A lot of us have achieved success in our careers because somebody once said to us, “You know, did you ever think about doing this?” People frequently see things in us that we don’t see in ourselves.

Q. So why are managers so stingy with recognition? If the message is clear that people want more of it, why don’t managers just recognize people more?

A. Managers can feel over overwhelmed by the thought of “now I have to recognize my people,” as if it’s another thing on their long to-do list. The fact that they feel like they don’t have the time is a myth. It only takes less than a minute, and it doesn’t cost anything.

But the main reason people don’t recognize other people is that they have not been recognized themselves well enough to know how to do it well for others, and so they don’t. They don’t know the difference that their recognition will mean for other people. They think, “We’re paying these people, so why should we have to recognize them?”

“The net of it all is just that people want to know, do I matter?”

Or they think sometimes that it will show favoritism and they don’t want to get caught in that trap. They also might think that other people are already recognizing them, so why do they have to do it? They think it will set a precedent, or be seen as an instant performance review that might be invoked when a tougher discussion has to occur.

But the net of it all is just that people want to know, do I matter? And people don’t necessarily need to hear it weekly or monthly. Gallup did a poll where it found that something like 68 percent of Americans got no recognition in the course of a whole year.

Q. Other tips on how to recognize people effectively?

A. It has to be specific and timely. Don’t give people feedback a year later on how they did something well. And you have to have the mindset of focusing on what someone is doing right rather than what they’re doing wrong. One leader I talked with had horrible culture scores, and one of the calls from employees was for more recognition. So he said to his leadership team, “For the next month, all we’re going to do is tell people when they did something right. That’s it.” He said the shift completely transformed his culture. Focusing on the positive also opened people up to hearing about how they might do something better or differently next time.

It needs to come from a place of gratitude and not taking people for granted. You have to ask yourself, “What would it be like if we didn’t have this person here?” And then recognize that that would be a huge loss. The other thing is believing in people even if they don’t believe in themselves.

It’s about the science of positive psychology, which proves that if you engender good feelings in people, it will make them more creative, they’re able to take in more information, and they’re more resilient. The science is there that shows how much more productive and effective you are as an individual if you’re feeling good.

Q. Final advice?

A. It’s important for managers to have some kind of prompt to make sure that they are regularly connecting with their people on an individual basis. But there is a dichotomy here – there has to be some regularity to the recognition, but the other side of that coin is that recognition only really works and lands well when it’s sincere and if it’s unexpected. Also, change up the forms of recognizing people to keep it meaningful, such as publicly appreciating someone one day and writing a thank-you note another.

Another way to think about it is to imagine your adult child going into the workplace. What would you want them to hear from their managers? All leaders have to recognize that they are the caretakers of the children of all these other people.

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