Why is it that one of the management tasks that is easiest to provide is also one of the most frequently neglected?

That question was on my mind as I reviewed a new study examining employee engagement trends in the financial services industry. While the study, conducted by TINYpulse, an employee survey firm, focused on numerous aspects of management, the element that most interested me involved employee recognition.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As is often the case, recognition-related results were dismally low. According to the survey, only 20% of employees feel strongly valued at work. Eighty percent felt “poorly to moderately valued.”

The report also stated – with some surprise – that only 22% of employees felt “happy” at work, with 78% feeling “indifferent or unhappy.” After all, the report noted, the financial services industry is “known for relatively strong, stable salaries,” and is “back on track and performing better than ever after the Great Recession.”

Perhaps. But if you consider this data, the low happiness levels really aren’t surprising. If someone doesn’t feel valued at work, there’s an excellent chance he or she won’t be happy at work either. Or highly motivated. Or fully productive. That you can count on. It’s just human nature.

What is surprising, however, is how chronically recognition is mishandled by management. This is a subject I think I know a tad about. I happened to work in financial services management for around a quarter century (though this issue is by no means unique to this sector) and have written about it before. One key observation: During my time in management I was involved in many employee surveys, and the one issue that recurred in literally every single one of them was employee recognition.

Simply put, employees never got enough of it – it was always a pain point.

So was I shocked that in this new TINYpulse survey, only 20 percent of employees felt “strongly valued at work”?  Can’t say I was.  The survey included some comments to add a personal flavor. A few examples:

"I am not looking for a pat on the back every time I do something for a co-worker or a customer. But I think my hard work has been ignored. I have gone above and beyond in many ways and never recognized for it."

"Lately have felt no matter how much work you do it is not recognized, only the bad things are brought to light and blown out of proportion."

Sounds all too familiar.  The report also noted that problems associated with lack of recognition are only exacerbated for Millennials, as data suggests Millennial employees expect (and enjoy) recognition even more than non-Millennials. Fair enough. Seems plausible to me.

But the most ironic – and unfortunate – aspect of this widespread productivity-diminishing Recognition Gap is that it’s so avoidable.  Sure, companies can set up elaborate, costly formal recognition programs. And they’re OK. They can be useful.  But if I learned anything in decades in business it’s that the kind of recognition employees really appreciate in the trenches…in the day-to-day grind of work…is much simpler. It’s a pat on the back from their manager. It’s being told they’re doing a good job. It’s a heartfelt thank you for a tough project well done. Sincere appreciation sincerely expressed.

All of which take hardly any time. And all of which have exactly the same cost: nothing.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).

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