Article: Why employee recognition doesn't work: The dark side of boosting team morale

Benefits & Rewards

Why employee recognition doesn't work: The dark side of boosting team morale

Recognition generally entails acknowledging accomplishments and performance results, whereas appreciation extends further by recognising an individual's inherent value and their contributions to the organisational culture.
Why employee recognition doesn't work: The dark side of boosting team morale

In our journey through life, relationships stand as pillars of support, offering solace, joy, and a sense of belonging. Extensive research has underscored the profound impact of human connection on our overall well-being and resilience. Yet, it's not only in our personal lives where relationships hold sway; they also wield significant influence within the confines of our workplace.

According to Aaron Hurst, the founder of Imperative, relationships serve as the linchpin of fulfilment at work. As individuals spend a substantial portion of their lives within the professional sphere, fostering meaningful connections becomes paramount to creating a conducive and enriching environment. One powerful way to cultivate and reinforce these relationships is through recognition. 

However, recognition is more than just a fleeting pat on the back; it serves as a cornerstone of a thriving workplace culture. When done effectively, it fosters a sense of appreciation, motivation, and camaraderie among employees. Yet, here lies the challenge: when executed poorly, recognition initiatives can backfire, undermining the very culture they aim to reinforce.

The journey towards building a culture of recognition and appreciation is not without its challenges. It requires a concerted effort to overcome barriers such as biases, favouritism, and inconsistency in acknowledgment. Organisations must invest in robust recognition programs, coupled with training and education to ensure equitable and transparent practices.

Recognition in the workplace (does not) always equate to appreciation!

Recognition typically involves acknowledging achievements and performance outcomes, while appreciation goes beyond this, recognising an individual's intrinsic worth and contributions to the organisational culture. Understanding this difference is crucial as it significantly impacts employee engagement, morale, and overall organisational culture.

Appreciation extends beyond measurable performance metrics, recognising an individual's unique qualities and intrinsic value. It emphasises who they are rather than solely focusing on what they do. As Mike Robbins aptly puts it, "recognition is about what people do; appreciation is about who they are." This nuanced distinction highlights the importance of valuing employees for their inherent worth and character, not just their contributions to the bottom line.

However, despite the importance of appreciation, many workplaces prioritise performance-based recognition, inadvertently overlooking the profound impact of genuine appreciation. This preference for recognition over appreciation can lead to detrimental outcomes, including conditionality and scarcity.

Conditionality in recognition arises from its link to past achievements and performance outcomes. Employees often feel pressured to outperform their peers and surpass their past accomplishments to receive recognition, fostering a hypercompetitive work environment that undermines collaboration and teamwork.

Furthermore, the scarcity of recognition exacerbates this issue, as tangible rewards such as bonuses or promotions are limited. In this competitive landscape, employees may feel undervalued, leading to disengagement and disillusionment.

To foster an inclusive and supportive workplace culture, organisations must recognise the intrinsic value of appreciation alongside performance-based recognition. Embracing appreciation cultivates a culture of gratitude, empathy, and mutual respect, strengthening interpersonal connections and boosting employee morale.

Ultimately, integrating both recognition and appreciation is essential for creating a positive and thriving workplace environment. By valuing employees for their tangible contributions and unique qualities, organizations can foster a culture where individuals feel recognized, valued, and empowered to bring their whole selves to work.

Unhealthy recognition foster toxic workplace cultures

The perils of this model are starkly illustrated in Japan's epidemic of karoshi, or death from overwork. Japanese professionals routinely log over 100 hours of overtime per month, a practice that significantly elevates the risk of stroke and heart disease due to the combined emotional and physical stress of work.

In a tragic incident that epitomises this issue, Miwa Sado, a reporter for NHK, succumbed to congestive heart failure while holding onto her smartphone. In the month leading up to her death, she logged an astonishing 159 hours of overtime and took only two days off. She was just 31 years old.

While the causes of karoshi are multifaceted and complex, Japanese business culture's heavy emphasis on performance-based recognition plays a significant role. In this context, performance is often equated with the number of hours spent working.

According to Yoko Ishikura, professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University, many companies and bosses in Japan evaluate performance primarily based on face-time, or the amount of time spent in the office. This narrow focus on hours worked often disregards efficiency and productivity, leading to a culture where long hours are equated with competence and dedication, while those who work efficiently are overlooked.

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How to recognise employee? 

To truly make an impact and avoid the pitfalls that can undermine recognition efforts, business owners need to adopt a strategic approach. Here are some no-nonsense tips for getting it right:

Make it Personal: Recognise that One Size Doesn't Fit All

Generic forms of recognition fall short of making a meaningful impact. Tailor your recognition efforts to each individual employee. Take the time to understand their preferences—some may prefer public praise, while others appreciate a private acknowledgment. Demonstrating emotional intelligence in your recognition efforts ensures that your gestures resonate with your team members on a personal level.

Harness the Power of Specificity

Specific recognition is not only courteous but also psychologically powerful. When you acknowledge a specific achievement or behaviour, you reinforce its importance and increase the likelihood of its repetition. Avoid generic praise, which can create confusion and breed complacency. Instead, provide detailed feedback that highlights the specific actions or results deserving of recognition.

Embrace Timeliness: Recognise Achievements in Real-Time

Delaying recognition diminishes its impact. Immediate acknowledgment triggers the release of dopamine, reinforcing the desired behaviour and increasing the likelihood of its recurrence. Waiting for quarterly reviews or annual evaluations to provide praise is out dated and ineffective. Recognise your employees' achievements as they happen to maximize their motivational impact and shape future performance.

Align Recognition with Company Values

Effective recognition reinforces and exemplifies your company's core values. Celebrate behaviours and accomplishments that align with your organisational goals and mission. By tying recognition to company values, you not only make employees feel valued but also strengthen organisational culture and strategic alignment.

Recognise the Art and Science of Employee Recognition

Employee recognition is more than just a buzzword—it's a multidimensional practice that blends psychology, neuroscience, and business strategy. A strategic approach to recognition acknowledges its complexity and leverages it as a powerful tool for driving performance and shaping culture.

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Topics: Benefits & Rewards, #TotalRewards, #HRTech, #HRCommunity

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