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Recognition Is Easy, So Why Do We Make It So Hard?

It's common for employees to feel their best efforts are routinely ignored.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recognition should be simple, yet it's a common management stumbling block.

Because HR departments know that recognition is something their managers should often be doing better than they are, they feel the need to develop formal recognition programs. And these are okay—at times a little bureaucratic and complicated and time-consuming perhaps—but nothing harmful.

But a once-a-month corporate program is no substitute for what all managers should be doing on a regular basis.

A 2016 Gallup survey gives a concise overview of the employee recognition landscape. It correctly describes recognition as a low cost, high impact management activity and concludes: "According to Gallup's analysis, only one in three workers in the U.S. strongly agree that they received recognition or praise for doing good work in the past seven days. At any given company, it's not uncommon for employees to feel their best efforts are routinely ignored. Further, employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they'll quit in the next year."

Do these results surprise me? About as much as if you told me the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. In my business, and over the course of a long management career, I constantly hear about deadbeat managers who never utter a word of praise; sad to say, the issue is common as dust.

Which is a serious management problem. Because the fact is, the most valuable kind of recognition — the informal kind given from manager to employee — is darn simple. No rocket science here. Let's look at three key characteristics.

Immediate. There's no substitute for timeliness. The most effective recognition is given in real time: An employee does something that merits praise, and a manager says a simple heartfelt thank you. Or another word of appreciation. Or a pat on the back. The employee knows he or she has done something well and feels good about it. Does this require much management time? Oh, maybe about one or two minutes.

As Gallup notes: low cost, high impact.

Genuine. The term "authenticity" has become a cliche in the management world, but it does have value here. For recognition to be effective, it needn't be anything elaborate or complicated. But it does need to be genuine. It has to be something the manager believes and the employee understands. Does the manager have to be eloquent? Not in the slightest. The phrases "nice job," "good job," "that was great," and "really appreciate it" (among about 300 others) all work perfectly when said with the right tone and spirit.

Well-deserved. Lastly, the recognition must of course be warranted; there's no point in praise if it's not. A manager has nothing to gain by losing credibility. But if praise is warranted, a manager has absolutely nothing to gain by withholding it. There's nothing to gain by being emotionally stingy.

It just needlessly frustrates employees, who are left to wonder if they're doing a good job — but don't really know.

Victor Lipman is an executive coach and author of The Type B Manager.

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