Starving for Recognition:
Understanding Recognition and the
Seven Recognition Do's and Don'ts

by Peter B. Grazier


Starving for Recognition


In 1981, I was working as the project engineer on a construction project to modernize a silicon wafer manufacturing facility in St. Louis. We, as the project's management, had begun an employee involvement process (although we didn't call it that back then) to involve the trades people in ways to improve performance.

About six months into the project, it came to our attention that a crew of ironworkers had completed the erection of some structural steel in one of the operating areas of the plant. The task was a difficult one, but despite this, the crew completed the work weeks ahead of schedule, well under budget, and without safety or other incidents. In short, it was an outstanding job.

Our newly formed "steering committee" talked about the effort and agreed that somehow these people must be "thanked" for their contribution. We subsequently sent letters to their homes thanking them for their outstanding work and also inviting them and their wives to a dinner in their honor at a nice hotel in St. Louis.

The dinner was held on a Friday night and, to lighten the atmosphere, the managers "roasted" the crew members. It was an outstanding evening.

The following Monday morning I was walking around the site when I came upon one of the workers from the crew. Jerry was in his 50's, usually loud and jovial, and somewhat hardened from his years working with steel. But on this morning he was unusually quiet, appearing deep in thought.

Since we had just held the dinner the previous Friday, I asked Jerry if anything was wrong. "You remember those letters you sent to our homes?" he said. "When I arrived at home that day my wife was waiting for me at the door--with the letter in her hands, and tears in her eyes. And she said to me 'Jerry, you've been an ironworker for 30 years, and nobody's ever thanked you for anything.'"

Jerry paused, and we both just stood there quiet for a moment. I thought to myself, how is it possible that someone could work for 30 years and not be thanked for something? What I didn't know at the time was that this was the first of what was to become about 200 experiences like the one above during the next five years. Through these experiences I have come to believe that in the workplace, we just don't thank people enough for their contributions. Recognition is woefully lacking.
 

 Maslow Told Us Years Ago

Industrial psychologist Abraham Maslow researched human motivation extensively and determined 50 years ago that needs drive motivation. From our most basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, safety, and security, to our more sophisticated needs of ego satisfaction and self-actualization, we are driven to fulfill these needs. And we will usually undergo some internal tension (for example, the tension of hunger when we need to eat) until the need is satisfied. This tension, then, prods (or motivates) us constantly until the need is met.

The need for recognition, as one of our more sophisticated needs, is one of the most difficult to achieve. It is the only one of which we are wholly dependent upon others to respond appropriately. In other words, recognition, by definition, must come from others.

I wondered for years why so many recipients would experience an emotional response (such as tears) when receiving some recognition. What I came to understand was that they were finally breaking through a barrier (need fulfillment) that they had spent years striving for. Someone had finally thanked them for their good work.
 

The Importance of Recognition

I think at times we have a tendency to underestimate the importance of recognition. We just don't seem to thank people enough. However, a few years ago I came across a Harris poll of several thousand workers that asked "What 2 or 3 things do you want most in a job?"

The first three most frequent answers were:

1. A good salary
2. Job security
3. Recognition for a job well done

Additionally, I have read the Association for Quality and Participation's newsletter AQP Report for years and have always been fascinated by one statistic. The subject of "rewards and recognition" almost always places first, second, or third in the "AQP's Top 10 Information Requests." It seems that people have more than a passing interest in the subject.

Perhaps my most palpable evidence comes from my own seminars. When we begin discussing recognition, participants will invariably want more discussion. They will frequently take the subject to greater depths, becoming animated and more vocal about the need for recognition. It clearly touches a nerve.
 

We May Overestimate Our Own Use of Recognition

It's easy to be a critic, and frequently in my seminars, people will criticize their organization's lack of use of recognition. At this point I usually break the participants into groups of about five or six and tell them to go off somewhere, sit on the floor in a circle, and, in turn, pay each other a compliment. At first, it's all fun and games, but within a minute or two the group gets very quiet and serious. sometimes people say things to each other that they've "been meaning to say for years," but just haven't done it.

When we finally process the exercise, people remark that maybe they "don't do it as much as they should." They also say how good it felt to get a compliment, and how good it felt to give one. It's one of the easiest "double wins" in life.
 

How Does Recognition Affect Personal and Organization Performance?

Joe Average is a worker in X Corporation. Joe comes to work, does his job, and goes home. Occasionally, his supervisor wishes he could get higher performance from Joe, but he has concluded that Joe is just "average," and average workers give average work.

One day in our mythical world (not so mythical, as this is a real story), we follow Joe home. Joe eats dinner with his family, then zooms into the basement where he works tirelessly to build equipment for his daughter's softball team. Joe's energy is peaking, the sweat is flowing from his brow, and he is accomplishing more in one evening than most people could do in a week! Why? He's certainly not being paid for this work.

Maslow would probably say that Joe is being driven by a need to make a contribution, be recognized, or enhance his feelings of self-worth. He may also simply enjoy the project or it may be his way of relaxing. Whatever the reason, there is clearly a difference between Joe's effort at home and his effort at work.

Perhaps Joe gave the same performance at work years earlier, but since that effort was never recognized, he assumed that they didn't care. Eventually, his performance at work diminished and he shifted his energies elsewhere. The organization lost all this productive energy.

Recognition is important because it sends a powerful message that the recipient is important. It says that the organization cares about good performance. When this messge is lacking, overall performance may drift in search of a direction. If low performers are treated the same as high performers, the message will be translated that high performance gets you nowhere. Eventually, many in the workforce will settle at some minimal acceptable level of performance. Surveys of workers by the Public Agenda Forum have confirmed that most workers say they are working "significantly below their potential."
 

Recognition is a "Mental" Thing

In 1984 I was working at another construction project located in New Jersey. The project employed several thousand workers, and it was easy to get lost in the shuffle.

We established a formal recognition program whereby anyone could nominate another for recognition by filling out a form and submitting it to the Recognition Committee (a cross-section of the employee population). Over the two remaining years of the project, several hundred people received recognition through this process.

Since we were limited in funding for the process, we were forced to use our imaginations to make recognitions meaningful (which was a blessing in disguise). For example, an electrician from South Carolina (large projects attract workers from many states) was being recognized for his contribution to the project. He received a small gift (belt buckle) unique to the job with his name engraved on it and an envelope with a $50 dinner certificate. His expression of appreciation was calm as expected until he looked closer at the dinner certificate. The certificate was from he and his wife's favorite restaurant in South Carolina. He was flabbergasted! He could not believe that this large, busy organization had spent the time and effort to find out about him and make his recognition so special.

Over the two remaining years of the project, the recognition program gained respect from everyone because it was so effective in seeking out exceptional performance. There is something intrinsically satisfying about "thanking" someone when it is clearly deserved. Construction people tend to be viewed as "tough" and "hard" at times, but the good feeling that touched everyone during a recognition ceremony brought forth emotions that lasted for days.
 

Employee Involvement is Recognition

Early in my career I wondered why we would observe behavioral changes in people when they were first involved in their organization's thinking processes. Many times "troublemakers" or people with "an attitude" would suddenly become more cooperative and helpful to others. I have also had at least one spouse tell me that her husband's attitude at home had improved dramatically since his becoming involved in some meaningful project at work. This is not a unique phenomenon, but one that employee involvement facilitators talk about frequently.

Although there are a number of psychological reasons for this behavioral change, such as releasing pent-up energies and frustrations, I have come to believe that the need for recognition plays a strong part.

Maslow said that people may strive for years to seek some recognition for their abilities, only to be frustrated by its absence. When the organization finally involves someone in meaningful, mind-provoking thought about how to improve the business, it is paying the person enormous recognition for their ability to contribute. Employee involvement, then, becomes a powerful form of recognition.
 

Seven Recognition Do's and Don'ts

Over the years that I have been involved with recognition processes, I have developed a list of what I call "Recognition Do's and Don'ts." When one ventures into recognition in the workplace, one will, invariably, make mistakes. So what are those elements of recognition that either make it succeed, or produce results far below what was hoped?

1. Keep clear the distinction between recognition and incentives. An incentive is an enticement advertised in advance to get people to do something. Recognition is a "thank you" given after the fact.

2. Keep the recognition criteria wide open. Too many times organizations will limit the criteria by which one can receive recognition. The committees I have worked with found that there are so many opportunities for recognition that it is virtually impossible to list criteria. A good recognition committee can determine through consensus if a "thank you" is truly deserved.

3. Nominations should be open to all employees. Management's eyes cannot be everywhere. Frequently, they will miss the outstanding performance on the loading dock. Allow everyone in the organization the opportunity to nominate someone for recognition. One of the greatest nominations our committee ever received came from a pipefitter who had added two eloquently written pages to the nomination to say what an outstanding worker his partner was.

4. Maintain confidentiality during investigations. All persons nominated for recognition may not, in fact, be deserving. Keeping the process confidential will help to avoid hurting someone, and bring credibility to the process. Also remember to include management in the investigation process. The nominee's supervisor and manager have a need to be included, as they may be aware of other issues that may affect the committee's decision.

5. Make the recognition special, not expensive. In the past, some of the recognition committees felt that an expensive award of $300 or $400 sent a more powerful "thank you." However, as the dollar amounts climbed, the "thank you" became lost somewhere. The recognition process became more like an incentive program or contest. I even had a recipient tell me how angered he was by how his recognition was handled, even though he received $1000 from his company!

A recognition award should be a "token" of appreciation. A specially made (but inexpensive) certificate of appreciation will hang in the den forever. Money, however, will be spent and forgotten.

6. Include family in presentations when possible. This extends the recognition and resulting "good feeling" to the entire family.

7. Use good judgment. When it comes to performing meaningful recognitions, nothing replaces good judgment. People seem to know when recognition is deserved and how much is appropriate. Perhaps this is why recognition committees serve such a valuable function.


Related Article:  Praise to Criticism Ratio

People will engage in pleasant activities. Research in education has shown that it takes a 4 to 1 praise to criticism ratio to maintain ideal student on-task behavior. To change student behavior, it takes a significantly higher ratio, about 8 to 1.

Researchers also asked teachers to record how they use various techniques to change student behavior. They asked teachers to group their behavior change methods into seven categories which included: pain, fear and anxiety, frustration, humiliation and embarrassment, boredom, physical discomfort, and positive comments.

When they analyzed the data, they found that the actual praise to criticism ratio was 1 to 4---that's one praise to four criticisms! Teachers, by their patterns of verbal interaction, were actually creating off-task problems for themselves.

How does the above apply in your situation as a leader? Do you praise more often than criticize? Or is it the other way around? Think about it.