The Power of Recognition

It had never happened to me before.  Anyone who does a lot of training – particularly if you offer the same sessions over and over again – has a standard schtick.  There are a set of jokes that always get a laugh (or a groan – laissez-faire leadership is an oxymoron – the words are contradictory like “jumbo shrimp” or “country music”).  There are standard exercises or interactive bits that always get the same result.  When I am speaking about recognition I always ask “how many people have gotten a written thank you note from your boss”.  Then I ask “how many people have kept the note”.  Almost always, 30-50% of the participants have received notes.  Almost all (typically well over 90%) of those who received a note had kept it.  It’s a great illustration of how important it is to receive recognition from your leader (I also always point out that I have a note from my university president from 10 years ago in my desk drawer but did not keep the Valentine’s Day card my wife of 30 years gave me two months ago – make of that what you will). This morning – nothing.  In response to “how many people have gotten a written thank you note from your boss”, not a single hand was raised.

Grasping at straws I asked “how many people hear thank you or get told they did a good job on a regular basis”.  Again… nothing… you could hear crickets.  After a long uncomfortable silence, I asked “why do you think that is?”. The mumbled responses were largely to the effect that you don’t thank someone for just doing their job, their thank you is the pay cheque or they will hear about their success in their annual performance review.  At this point I was looking around for the hidden camera convinced that I was being pranked.  This was a group of well-intentioned and thoughtful organizational leaders that apparently placed no value on the power of recognition.

There is a limited amount of research on recognition in the workplace – perhaps because the point is so obvious.  But we know, for example, that leader recognition is a good predictor of employee well-being – Stephanie Gilbert and I showed that recognition is one of the ways that good leadership enhances employee wellbeing[1].  Indeed. recognition is one of the elements included in almost any model of what constitutes a healthy workplace[2].  We all want to think that we are good at our job and recognition is one of the ways that leaders directly enhance the dignity of individual employees[3].  Recognition is so important that I often suggest to leaders that one of the most important things they can do is to tell five people a day that they are doing a good job.

So why don’t we do that?  Over the last few years every time I have done a study or an employee survey for a corporate client I have included a measure of leader recognition.  It’s a simple four-item scale, “My supervisor… compliments me on my job performance, notices when I do good work, thanks me for the work I do, tells me when I have a done a good job”.  The items form part of our R.I.G.H.T. leadership assessment[4]and similar items are built in to our measure of S.A.F.E.R. leadership[5].  Almost every time, I use the measure, scores on the scale are incredibly low (on a seven-point response scale the mean is less than 4 with only 30-40% of respondents agreeing with any particular item).

In talking about recognition to corporate leaders I have heard every possible excuse for not recognizing individual/team performance on a regular basis. “I don’t have time to do this” “The union won’t allow it”. “If I tell someone that they did a good job, I have to tell everyone that they are great.”  “I don’t want them to think I am playing favorites”, “What if I tell them that they did something well and tomorrow I have to discipline them?”  “I don’t want to set a precedent.”  My personal favorite, given the data mentioned above is “If I recognize them too much they will come to expect it and it will lose value.” (this may happen but most of us are nowhere near that point).

These are, to my mind, pretty weak excuses. As we continue to collect data on this, we are more and more aware of the power of recognition in increasing both employee wellbeing and performance.  Recognizing employees for the good work they do needs to be a fundamental, and daily, task of leaders in organization.  Rather than avoiding recognition we should be seeking out opportunities to point out when someone has done something well. Countless reports from leaders I have worked with suggests that doing so will benefit both the employee and the leader.

[1]Gilbert, S.G. & Kelloway, E.K. (in press). Leadership, recognition and well-being: A moderated meditational model. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences.

[2]Day, A., Kelloway, E.K. & Hurrell, J.J. (Eds., 2014) Workplace Wellbeing: How to build a psychologically health workplace. Wiley.

[3]Kelloway, E.K. (2017).  The Dignity of Labor: Dignity as a core resource. In A.M. Rossi, J.A. Meurs and P. Perrewe (Eds). Stress and the Quality of Working Life, 6th Edition.  Information Age Publishing

[4]Kelloway, E.K., Penney, S. & Dimoff, J.K.  (2017). Leading the Psychologically Healthy Workplace: The RIGHT Way in E.K. Kelloway, K.Neilsen & J. K. Dimoff (Eds). Leading to Occupational Health and Safety: Wile

[5]Wong, J.H.K., Kelloway, E.K. & Makhan, D.W. (2015). Safety Leadership in S.Clarke, T. Probst, F. Guldenmund & J. Passmore (Eds).  The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Occupational Safety and Workpalce Health.  Chichester: Wiley

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