I was grocery shopping the other day (Yes, this sometimes happens). A mom with two small kids in tow kept up a constant stream of chatter: “Great job pushing the cart, Stella, you are so smart.” “Good work picking out a pepper, Max, now put it back.” It went on and on – kids do something/anything, mother responds with a positive affirmation, kids do another something, mother reacts. This is so awesome to see in action. I’m in aisle 10 and it continues. There is a giant metaphor unfolding as I seek out my coconut water.
You rock. You’re so special. Nice job putting your toys away. On and on it goes: reflexive praise for doing the right thing and, in many cases, the not-so-right thing. We’re becoming a culture in which people expect to be rewarded for drawing breath and taking up space, which makes the job of an HR pro or business leader tasked with employee retention a difficult one indeed. If many of your employees expect routine and social praise and “badges”, how can you recognize extraordinary achievement? When should recognition and reward be linked?
In many organizations recognition and financial reward are joined at the hip. An employee does something above and beyond and receives a gift card or a lunch with the boss; a team achieves a goal and is rewarded with a party. These rewards, however, can backfire; they tell the employee that he or she is worth n dollars to the organization for some level of effort. In my opinion this approach misses the point of recognition: people are motivated by more than money. People crave positive feedback, recognition they put in extra effort, acknowledgement of leaders and peers, the glow that comes with knowing an achievement has been seen, appreciated and celebrated. I love this place. But I’m also realistic as I look at ways leaders can recruit and truly nurture current and future talent.
Financial reward is a great thing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the equivalent of recognition. Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s a short term solution. Neither is constant praise for average work. Recognition is a key tool in employee retention programs for a reason: people need more than constructive feedback and positive affirmation. They need recognition of extra effort. They need to “feel” it. This will never go away as a basic human need.
An effective approach to employee recognition encompasses these key points:
1) In the moment – as much as possible, be timely. Catch people doing exemplary work and acknowledge their efforts. Don’t be knee-jerk – showing up for work on time does not count in most cases. Be specific, descriptive and measured.
3) Appropriate in volume/scale – think back to the mom in the market. Was the praise she doled out appropriate in scale and volume? Not really. Here again randomness is not your ally. Recognition should match effort and results, or it loses meaning. This is where the complexity lives.
4) Authentic, not automatic – you have to mean it when you give employees recognition. This is my chief worry about automated recognition systems – they remove the human touch so important to effective recognition. Can we find a smart balance? Can we make social HRTech software work?
5) Tied to the employee’s perception of value – people know when they’re valued, and they should have a good idea of their value to the organization. Monetary rewards can skew this notion of value, linking it to cash when it should be linked to appreciation of extra effort and smarts. Money is appropriate much of the time, but it’s not the only – or even the most effective – motivator. Treat employees as valued team members, not as numbers. Most of the time it’s the best way to really recognize a valued player.
There is HR Technology that’s super sexy and relevant for engagement. I’m overthinking it at the moment. This is typical as we find the most meaningful ways to innovate the future of work. I’m excited about software and social applications for rockstar leaders and workplace culture. It’s all good. Now we seek to connect the most relevant, human and inspiring dots.
I have many thoughts about how we, as a society and a global social leadership community, handle recognition, but I’d like to hear what’s on your mind. Please weigh in and tell me what recognition means to you, and how you’ve successfully recognized your employees and co-workers. Leaders jump in here too. Lead the revolution. You Rock.
Image credit: businessnewsdaily.com
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A version of this post was first published on published on Forbes on 1/13/13