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.
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
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
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
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
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
Employee Involvement is
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
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
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.
Related Teambuilding Session: