Recognition is a tricky thing. Employee motivations can vary. The ways people want to be recognized can vary just as much.
Know your audience
One sunny day several years ago I was so excited to give a co-worker a recognition award. The process involved her receiving a check, a certificate and getting her picture taken with the head honcho. Little did I know that my co-worker was horrified at the thought of having her picture taken. She disappeared down the back stairs of the building. My attempt to recognize her backfired in a big way.
I’ve flubbed a few more times. I’ve also heard stories where people don’t get recognized for what’s meaningful for them. Then they get recognized for something that means nothing to them.
Broaden your interpretation
Let’s dig into the meaning of the root of recognition — that is, to recognize. This can be defined as:
To acknowledge the existence or validity
It’s like when you see someone in public who is vaguely familiar. It may be a former classmate or co-worker. You might greet them with, “I recognize you!” In other words, “I know you. I see you.”
I see you
The need to be seen is very human. Just check David Rock’s work about human needs in social interactions. He says when we are approached our brains immediately scan for the likely outcome. Will it be a threat or a reward? (Both words are defined broadly here.)
If we apply his model, we can connect the need to be seen to our need as humans for status and relatedness. Are the people in your sphere being “seen” by you? Are you getting enough acknowledgement where you are?
“To recognize” at work can look like this:
- You call an employee to your office and know they might worry about it. You allay their fears if possible.
- You told a co-worker you would do something. You didn’t follow through. You acknowledge it, apologize and make it right.
- You know something you just said in that meeting puts your boss in a tight spot. You contact them as quickly as possible to give them a heads-up. You recognize the effect of your actions on another.
Your acknowledgement lets them know you can put yourself in their place. Taking action shows you recognize the role you can play to make the situation better for them. Bothering to take action demonstrates their “status” and “relatedness” to you, to use David Rock’s words. It creates goodwill and trust.
Don’t underestimate the impact of making the effort “to recognize”
It was a day full of dread. It was the second time in a few years that my job was at stake during a downsizing. My boss called each of us to tell us what the process would be on notification day. He would visit each of us in our own office to tell us whether we had a job.
I remember him coming in my office and shutting the door. He immediately sat down and told me that I still had a job, and then he listed the reasons he valued me and chose to keep me on.
In my 20-year corporate career I experienced 8 downsizing events. That is the only case where I remember vividly how my boss told me I still had a job.
You might think it is a peculiar view of recognition, but I felt so seen and appreciated that day. You are probably aware of these messages being delivered in thoughtless ways. I believe what my boss did that day was extraordinary, particularly under those circumstances.
He knew what was going to be on my mind, and the minds of those who lost their jobs that day. He thought through how he was going to deliver each message ahead of time.
Recognition is more than money or an award
You can define what my boss did different ways, but don’t take for granted that your employees will feel “recognized” when you demonstrate you truly see them, no matter what the message. You are recognizing and preserving their dignity
Visible, tangible recognition is important. Recognition and reward via financial compensation is exciting. Research also shows that the boost from a raise or promotion is short lived. Attending to your employees’ human need to be seen is one of the best investments you can make.