Three Reasons Your Best Employees Don’t Feel Recognized

Everyone agrees how important recognition is, but most organizations don’t seem to get it right. This is perplexing to me because the first and most critical step requires such a small action – asking your employee how he or she likes to be recognized for good work. Easy, right? But it does not happen. Why?

I have been asking managers this question for the past 13 years. The answers are always the same: “I don’t have the time to recognize everyone differently,” “My team is too large,” “I’ll never remember when the time comes.” But most distressing is: “I don’t want to know, because then I will be expected to do it.” Not surprisingly, most of these conversations happened with teams struggling over engagement issues.

If your organization is going to spend the worthwhile time, money, and resources to recognize your high performing employees, do it right. Here are three reasons your best employees don’t feel recognized and simple ways to fix it.

1. Wrong Recognition

Several years ago I ran an employee engagement meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa. The local team had scored dismally on employee recognition and the manager was puzzled. “Every time someone on the team does something good, I get them up in front of the whole team to celebrate it,” he told me.

But his best intentions at employee recognition were badly misguided. Most of his team actually didn’t like being publicly recognized. In fact, they hated it. The employees had such a strong sense of modesty that they were doing everything in their power to avoid his “recognition.” He thought he was engaging them; most were afraid that good work would force them into an embarrassing situation.

To get better results from an employee, ask, note, and follow through on their recognition preference in a timely manner. You will also get more of what you are recognizing. If you are a manager that simply does not want to know how your employees like to be recognized, find a job that does not require managing people.

2. Non-Specific Praise

“Great job!” is good, but “Excellent work on the launch of the new accounting system – especially the way it will make things easier for our mid-sized vendors” is much better. Just as customizing your recognition to the likes of the receiver adds greater value to them, so does giving specific versus general feedback.

The same “great job” can be canned and used for anyone, but specific feedback shows you actually notice the good work and care enough to comment on it.

3. Recognition Is A Check-The-Box Exercise

Sadly, most employees, managers and organizations see recognition as simply a tool to reinforce good behavior and have given it little strategic thought. However, sincere and targeted recognition is much more than a check-the-box exercise – it is an important part of caring for your employees. If you don’t recognize an employee for doing good work, you can hardly be called a caring manager or colleague. If you recognize your employees in the wrong ways, the same applies. If you ask them how they like to be recognized and then do something else, you guessed it – same result.

I once worked for an organization that aspired to having a culture of recognition. After about six months, I was at a meeting where the CEO spoke. During the break, I went up to thank him: “Nice job on your presentation. Your thoughts about our business opportunities in China related to improving middle class quality of life are really exciting.” He looked at me, said nothing, and walked away. This company struggled to get employees and managers to recognize others. After that experience, it was not surprising why. Praise at this organization was something that came in countless emails from HR reminding you to “do it” before they had to report on it at the next company meeting. If you have experienced this type of environment, you will know how forced, fake, and ineffective it feels.

To create an honest culture of effective recognition, you need to hire people that do it well by asking for recognition related examples during an interview process, lead by example, customize your praise, and be specific. If you are not living these principles at every level of your organization – not just manager to employee, but colleague-to-colleague and even employee to manager – you will not achieve the results you desire or highly engage your best employees.


Published on Forbes, 12th August 2013.

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