While the importance of employee recognition may be obvious to you, it's not obvious to everyone. The workplace is not always friendly to the role of emotion in getting things done, and Roy Saunderson says that's part of the resistance that some individuals—even whole organizations—have toward recognition. "Recognition is about both performance and feelings, and too many managers forget about the emotional connection that makes performance possible sometimes," says Saunderson, president and founder of the Recognition Management Institute, a company with headquarters in New York and Montreal that consults on how to recognize employees.
And some managers (and employees) not only forget about it, but are actively uncomfortable with it. Management consultant Judith Bardwick notes that she sees a lot of discomfort with emotion as a factor at work, but she also has seen a shift toward more willingness to show emotion or be emotional, and both are a critical part in being sincere about an employee''s contribution and the appreciation of that contribution.
"Sometimes, especially with managers, there's a fear that if you make it clear you care about your subordinates, you'll end up looking weak," Bardwick says. "The truth is that when you're willing to give up some control and work with them, you end up with more power than you had before. But not everybody understands that, or is willing to trust that it works."
When it comes to recognizing employees' performance, emotional intelligence really counts. Managers must be able to perceive that employees are proud of what they've done, as well as to know that what they've done is helpful to the organization. They also have to be able to observe or ask about what motivates any employee, and what reward might be most meaningful to them in the event their performance is recognized.
But not everyone has this quality, and Bardwick thinks managers' ability to read people, empathize, and be aware of their emotions is critical to whether they should be managing people at all.
"Certain skills can be honed, such as learning how to be a better mentor or coach and other leadership skills," says Bardwick. "But I sometimes talk to people who manage other people, and they ask me questions such as, 'How do you know when someone is angry or scared?' That's a big problem, and if you can't read people, you either need to learn or avoid managing others."
Bardwick says this is because managers' responsibility is to motivate the people whose performance makes a financial difference in the company's success. "A manager is the intermediary between the high-level decision makers and the people who do the work,” she says. "But if a manager is blind to human emotion, he or she is going to have a hard time knowing what to offer and what to avoid in terms of managing people’s emotional responses."
At the organizational level, discomfort with emotion can contribute to a company-wide lack of willingness to emphasize the skill of recognition to its managers. Especially for companies unsure of the importance of recognition, or the fact it is a skill that can be developed, recognition can be seen as just another soft skill. "The attitude is 'Here's how to be a manager, here's the plan, here are your responsibilities—and oh, by the way, remember to recognize achievement," says Tommy Lee Hayes-Brown, corporate recognition chairperson for MetLife in Hartford, CT. "Instead, it's necessary to train management in the concept, so they understand it and know how to do it meaningfully."
It's also necessary to encourage managers to recognize employees' contribution, and to monitor their success in doing so. "Managers get bombarded with business objectives and deliverables under considerable time pressure," says Gord Green, executive vice president of recognition and rewards strategy for Rideau Recognition Solutions in New York and Montreal. "In all that, whether or not a manager recognizes employees’ performance at all, never mind whether they’ve done it well or poorly, just doesn't register with managers the way, say, sales numbers do."
Bardwick suggests part of recognition training should include not only instruction in the recognition skills—such as mentoring, coaching, and the giving of feedback on performance—but also assessment in whether managers have the emotional intelligence to do these things well and motivate better performance. "Training," she says, "could use 360-degree evaluations, standardized personality tests, and experiential activities that give people some insight about themselves."
Sidebar: WorldAtWork Survey
WorldAtWork, a human resources association in Scottsdale, AZ, surveyed its members in December 2007 to find out what is happening with employee recognition programs in today's marketplace. The survey, "Trends in Employee Recognition 2008," is the fourth of its kind since WorldAtWork began it in 2002.
According to the survey, 21 percent of respondents said their organization had only formal recognition programs, while 9 percent said they had only informal programs. The lion's share (69 percent) said they had both.
Most of those programs are in place to recognize such things as length of service, retirement, major family events, or other events. Respondents said their company had programs to reward "above and beyond performance" (79 percent) and "programs to motivate specific behaviors" (25 percent).
Respondents felt these programs had high impact on sales performance (51 percent), above and beyond performance (27 percent), and motivating specific behaviors (27 percent).
While the most respondents said the objective of their organization's recognition programs was to create a positive work environment (77 percent), motivation of performance was the second most commonly cited objective, at 71 percent.
For more information about the survey, go to www.worldatwork.org.