In my work training and consulting around the country, the most common responses by employees when discussing employee recognition typically range from apathy to cynicism. One woman stated, “I haven’t heard anything positive for two years and you expect me to believe that they value me?”
Why Most Employee Recognition Programs Don’t Work
While the purpose of employee recognition activities are well intentioned, they actually often lead to negative results. For example, the generic nature of rewards that many programs use feels impersonal – when everyone gets the same “employee of the month” certificate.
Another problematic aspect is the focus on recognition in front of large groups: 30-40% of individuals indicate they do not want to go up in front of a group to receive an award. In fact, one staff member emphatically stated, “They can give me the award, but I won’t go up and get it unless they carry me up there!” Finally, most recognition programs heavily emphasize tangible rewards – plaques, certificates, gift cards, coupons, and small tokens. While most people don’t mind receiving gifts, if they don’t also hear verbal praise, receive individual attention, or get assistance when it is needed, the objects received seem superficial.
Core Conditions for Staff to Truly Feel Appreciated
Four core conditions have been identified which need to be present in order for employees to truly feel appreciated (which differs from recognition just being communicated). Team members will feel valued when appreciation is communicated:
- Regularly. What is "regularly"? It varies depending on the work setting, the frequency of interaction between co-workers, and the nature of the relationship. However, ‘regularly’ clearly implies more than once a year at an employee’s performance review, or when someone receives the “Staff Member of the Month” award.
- Through the "language" and actions important to the recipient. The key word is “recipient”. Most of us tend to communicate appreciation to others through the actions that we value – like giving a verbal compliment or sending an email. But not everyone feels appreciated in the same ways. Some people appreciate words of affirmation, while others are encouraged when someone helps them with a task. Spending time is another way to demonstrate support, like stopping by a colleague’s office to see how they are doing. Bringing a colleague a special cup of coffee when you know they’ve had a long day can be a “pick me up”. Even a “high five” or a “fist bump” can be a form of celebration when a difficult project has been completed.
- In a way that is personal and individualized. While group-based recognition is a good start (“Way to go, team. Our satisfaction ratings improved significantly last quarter.”), if the appreciation doesn’t relate to what the individual team member did to help achieve the goal, the communication can fall flat. Team members want to know what they have done that is valued – that you appreciate that they stayed late after an event to help clean up.
- In a manner that is perceived as genuine and authentic. If the communication of appreciation is not perceived as being genuine, nothing else really matters. Actions of recognition can appear inauthentic when: a) the actions suddenly appear after implementation of a program on appreciation; b) a person’s tone of voice, posture, or facial expressions don’t seem to match what they are saying; c) how a person relates to you in front of others differs from how they interact with you privately; d) the individual has a history of “saying one thing and doing another”; or e) there is an overall question of the motivation of the deliverer – do they have an ulterior motive? There are other potential factors that undermine perceived authenticity, but these are some of the most common mentioned.
Practical Steps for Communicating Authentic Appreciation
Helping individuals change their actions is difficult. No one is looking for more work to do. As a result, the focus needs to be on making actions of encouragement more efficient – to spend time with those who value time, to send notes to those who are impacted by them, to help someone out who will be grateful for the assistance, and to give a gift to someone who will appreciate the thought.
Two important points should be emphasized: 1) appreciation can be communicated by anyone to anyone, and 2) any team member, regardless of position, can positively impact their workplace culture. Employees report they want to know how to encourage one another – they do not just want to be recognized by their supervisor.
How do people know (or find out) what their colleagues value? The topic of “how do you feel appreciated” is not a common workplace conversation and this type of question can make individuals feel somewhat uncomfortable. But people do tend to think in terms of “encouragement” and “discouragement”. So, the question to ask is: “When you are discouraged, what is something that someone can do or say that would encourage you?”
Additionally, an online assessment tool is available that identifies the primary language of appreciation of individuals, along with the specific actions that are most important to them. The results can be compiled to create a group profile and list of valued actions for a team who works together.
Focus on yourself first. Commit to do what you can to communicate appreciation to others. Don’t look to your supervisor or administrators to take the lead. Start by doing what you can, where you are.
Team up with others. Any behavior change is more likely to occur (and to continue over time) when others are involved. Ask a colleague, your supervisor, or the team you lead to discuss how this could apply to your setting. Commit to work on a plan of action together.
Persevere. See what works, and what needs to be changed, but don’t give up.
More From Dr. Paul White
Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, speaker and consultant who “makes work relationships work”. He is the co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, and Sync or Swim. Go to http://www.appreciationatwork.com for more information.