the ceo magazine, employee engagement,
Karin Hurt and David Dye, Co-authors, Winning Well

Have you ever witnessed the exuberant celebration during an employee-recognition event when a name is called and the whole audience seems to scream, “Yes!”? People rise to their feet. It’s high fives the whole way back from the stage. There’s a certain magic that fills the room when the right person, is recognized for the right reasons, in the right way.

And yet, if you’re like most business owners, somewhere along the line, your well-intentioned recognition efforts didn’t make the impact you hoped.

Dumpster Recognition

Karin and her husband had arrived at a ritzy hotel for a friend’s wedding. Parking was tight so they drove around the corner to the back of the building.

Right beside the dumpsters were several tables set up for a hotel staff recognition luncheon. The nicely printed signage thanked them for their commitment to customers, but the thank-you signs were not enough to hide the trash or disguise the smell.

Karin was floored. She thought:

Let me get this right. You’re event superstars. You work to make every bride’s and corporate meeting planner’s dreams come true. Have you ever suggested a bride hold her rehearsal dinner by the dumpster?

What in the world possessed you to put white tablecloths on a backdrop of trash? What other options did you explore? Do you seriously expect the folks you’re “recognizing” to come back in and create magical, creative moments for your guests?

Someone must have thought this was a great idea, but it’s more than the thought that counts. It’s the impact.

8 Reasons Recognition Backfires

We hope that 2016 will bring you much to celebrate. As you plan how, avoid these common mistakes.

1. Recognizing Every Little Thing

You might hear someone say, “There’s no such thing as too much recognition.” We disagree. As with parents who praise their kids for every little thing and in turn create dysfunction, shallow praise over the small stuff can be a real turnoff for your serious performers.

One manager we know instructed team leaders to say, “Thank you for coming to work today,” as a way of reducing absenteeism. If showing up is the best behavior you can find to recognize, keep looking. That doesn’t mean you never acknowledge people for their consistency, but to do so every day cheapens it.

2. Recognizing with Caveats

Examples of recognition with caveats include:

  • “You did an awesome job, but . . .”
  • “Your performance was amazing, except for that hiccup in the second measure of the song.”
  • “You were very friendly with that customer, but you gave her the wrong information. Keep up the great work.”

Recognition is recognition. Coaching is coaching. Both are necessary, but when you confuse one for the other, it can quickly demotivate your people.

3. Recognizing in a Way That Creates Discomfort

Some people hate the spotlight. Even the thought of being called onto a stage is enough to make some “A” players break out into hives. Others love the attention and are disappointed when the recognition is done privately where there’s no one to applaud. Everyone needs recognition that is meaningful to him or her.

4. Recognizing Based on Numbers, While Ignoring the Behaviors

In an effort to remain “objective,” many leaders rely heavily on numbers and rankings as they select whom to recognize. Overreliance on the numbers can be a slippery slope. If a backstabbing team member wins an award, your entire recognition program loses credibility, and you send a message that the ends always justify the means. A good way to overcome this is to identify additional behaviors or related metrics to use as gateways.

5. Recognizing the Leader Without Acknowledging the Team

Leaders need recognition too. Sometimes there is huge value in recognizing a leader in front of his or her team. However, this is risky and must be done with care. Many times it’s best to use big recognition forums to recognize team efforts and save the individual leadership kudos for another venue.

6. Recognizing a Big Deal As If It’s a Small Deal

Or recognize a small deal as if it’s a big deal. “Thanks for saving us $5 million; here’s your certificate,” can backfire. Ensure that you calibrate the level of accomplishment with the level of recognition, and ensure that all the leaders delivering recognition at the same event are aligned with one another.

7. Recognizing in a Sloppy Way

We’ve both seen leaders go to the podium and read off a name of someone they’ve been called in to recognize, only to mispronounce the name. This mistake seems really basic but happens far too often. It doesn’t help if you laugh first and apologize. When you get a name wrong, you undermine any value your presence or praise might have had. You’ve just told the person he or she is not important enough for you to bother learning his or her name. If you’re the big shot called in to shake hands, be sure you take the time to learn how to pronounce names.

8. Recognizing by Reading from a Script

In our opinion, the managers who go to the microphone without lengthy notes always win. They speak from the heart. So what if they can’t quote every number? Their eyes light up. They tell a story. They mean it. Make sure you understand the recognition enough to mean it.

There’s nothing like the exhilaration of a big win, to make your team want to win again. Recognizing the right people, for the right reasons in the right way will go a long way to winning well and building results that last.

About the Author

Karin Hurt (Baltimore, MD) is a top leadership consultant and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and co-author of WINNING WELL: A Manager’s Guide To Getting Results – Without Losing Your Soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers.

David Dye (Denver, CO) is a former nonprofit executive, elected official, and president of Trailblaze, Inc., a leadership training and consulting firm and co-author of WINNING WELL: A Manager’s Guide To Getting Results – Without Losing Your Soul.

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