Solving the recognition paradox

No Thank YouEvery year, we send out employee surveys and, every year, we discover employees aren’t as engaged as we’d like.

And yet every year we neglect to do one of the cheapest, easiest, and most effective things we can do to improve employee engagement: appreciate what people do.


More than sex and money

Harvard Business Review routinely publishes articles on employee motivation and engagement. One of the most famous is from Frederick Herzberg who, in 1968, wrote “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” In that article (which for a long time had more reprints purchased than any other from HBR), Herzberg dismissed ham-fisted attempts by managers to motivate employees and urged them instead to focus on job enrichment and “motivator factors”.

“The growth or motivator factors that are intrinsic to the job are: achievement, recognition for achievement, the work itself, responsibility, and growth or advancement. The dissatisfaction-avoidance or hygiene factors that are extrinsic to the job include: company policy and administration, supervision, interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, status, and security.”

Herzberg’s surveys put recognition as the second most important factor in employee satisfaction.

This week, 45 years after Herzberg’s article, HBR published “The Two Most Important Words”. It’s a personal story from former Mattel CEO, Robert Eckert, on the power of saying “thank you” at work. To make his point more memorable, he quotes another CEO, cosmetics entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash:

“There are two things people want more than sex and money: recognition and praise.”

In the decades in between those two articles, there have been countless studies showing that recognition and praise increase engagement, decrease turnover, and lead to to many other very specific business benefits. So why don’t we see more of it?

Praise paralysis

Just this week, in a meeting where people were lamenting all the issues contributing to employee dissatisfaction, someone suggested we should recognize employees more. Another person agreed, saying that even though there wasn’t budget for events and the like, we should try to be creative.

“How about saying thank you?”, I asked. And an awkward silence fell upon the room.

It was as if “recognition” was something that only came packaged in awards programs. As if we have forgotten the simple, powerful, human gestures of sending a hand-written note or publicly recognizing someone’s work (something that’s become easer than ever to do using our social platform).

That meeting wasn’t an aberration. Research “revealed just one in five workers believe a boss at work has ever publicly recognized them. And fewer than half of employees have received even one personal thank-you from their boss.”

Barriers to praise

For many, the potential downsides of rewarding employees – that praise and recognition can be misused, misunderstood, or even bring about negative results – is enough to lead to inaction.

In “Why We Do What We Do”, the psychologist Edward Deci cautions that “rewards can be used as a way to express appreciation, but the more they are used as motivators…the more likely it is that they will have negative effects.”

Too often, managers rely on bonus money or other prizes to reward people. But, as Deci points out, “the results of the studies cast further doubt on the efficacy of these pay-for-performance practices.” Results tend to be short-term and “will likely encourage shortcuts and undermine intrinsic motivation. They will draw people’s attention away from the job itself, towards the rewards it can yield, and that without doubt will result in less effective, less creative problem solving.”

A safe way to start

So what do you do if crude carrots and sticks don’t work? You can get ideas for  comprehensive recognition programs from books like “The Carrot Principle”. They provide useful tools to help you decide on everything from budgets to specific types of rewards for different kinds of achievements.

To start, though, some of the best advice is also the easiest to follow: begin with a genuine, personal “thank you.” Robert Eckert put it well in “The Two Most Important Words”:

“Wherever I show my thanks, these tips work well for me:

  • Set aside time every week to acknowledge people’s good work.
  • Handwrite thank-you notes whenever you can. The personal touch matters in the digital age.
  • Punish in private; praise in public. Make the public praise timely and specific.”

I was thinking about this as I was walking to an appointment yesterday. I noticed a landscaper in Battery Park City pruning back some very tall grasses. It was clearly very physical work and the results were stunning. As I walked by, I thought “I should really say thank you.” Yet, in that moment, I was just like every manager at work. I knew what to do but was too busy with other things to act on it.

This time, though, I turned back, approached the landscaper, and thanked her for making our neighborhood look so wonderful. She looked at me, surprised. Then she wiped her brow and smiled. “Thank you for appreciating it.”

That moment made my day. And for the landscaper, she knew that at least one person valued her hard work and admired her achievement. That moment, multiplied by thousands – by millions – is what the Robert Eckert had in mind when he encouraged readers and their firms to “Foster a culture of gratitude. It’s a game changer for sustainably better performance.”

It is a game changer. And it could all start with a “thank you.”

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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20 Responses to Solving the recognition paradox

  1. You’re speaking my language!! Herzberg’s hygiene motivation theory is so critical to study and practice in this day and age! Great blog!!!

    Sent from my iPhone. Pardon brevity and typos.

  2. Reblogged this on Houldsworth's Random Ramblings and commented:
    Such a simple thing to do…why do we do this so rarely?

  3. Tracy Sas says:

    Thank you for your blog, John. Your words often resonate with me and I Ppreciate being able to pass on what I learn from you.

  4. Ed Altman says:

    John wrote: “How about saying thank you?”, I asked. . .

    Exactly, except I will add, ““How about saying thank you?”, and meaning it.

    Similarly, a very long time ago, my manager asked “How are you?”, and I started answering “Thing A is done, I’m working on thing B . . “, and he interrupted me and said, “No, I said ‘How are you?'” You don’t get so many managers that actually take that time.

  5. I actually had one manager, when I asked him why he didn’t do this, say, “Why? Where are they going? It is a bad economy and they won’t find another job.”

    Honestly, I think there is too much put on a manager. They have 10 people who are dependent upon the the manager for their praise, year-end evaluation, raise/bonus, and to clear out obstacles, fight for them, protect turf, and who are sucking up to them so they get the better end of the stick.

    I think if we restructured the way we manage our companies so that all the power (and expectation of praise) isn’t centered in a few people, it would be distributed to others and the THANK YOUs would be much more plentiful.

  6. testblog1999 says:

    Thank you for writing this blog every week! I appreciate all the research and hard work you put into it!

  7. moyramackie says:

    Thank you John, great as always. Whilst despairing about companies who can’t “act human”, I loved the story you told about the landscaper. As you said, both the person doing the thanking and the receiver get something out of it. It’s powerful stuff….rather like this blog ; – )

  8. @kevindjones Managers have come to see themselves as managers of numbers rather than people. They are paid to do both. Your point is on target in that we should all express thanks to others who help us do our work. That can make the work environment a gift economy rather than a purely exchange economy. However, managers are key to doing that by giving their time and attention to their subordinates as much as they do for their super-ordinates.

    @johnstepper Every time I go to a retail store on a holiday I thank the checkout clerk for working that day.

    • Sue Mastroianni says:

      Growing up we were taught the magic words ‘ “Please, Thank You and Excuse Me”.
      Simple words yet still magic.

  9. John, I agree in today’s digital world a hand written thank you card is a sign of true respect. Big fancy reward programs never really work, but small simple gestures rapidly behind a success work wonders.

    A mentor of mine many years ago ran an agricultural processing company, when people did something that resulted in an improvement within a couple days he would through them what he called mini-parties (coffee and treats, a delivered lunch (pizza, Chinese, etc., and for big ones a dinner out with their spouses) he was always in attendance and other than the congratulation remarks he never talked business during the time period, he instead used the time to learn about them. That company never earned the margins to give out huge dollar rewards, but I have also never seen a company whose people cared more for it.

  10. yemi says:

    Thanks John for another great post. I empathise with the hesitation to give praise – we’ve all had that apprehension. Just as you found you were able to do it, practicing doing it makes it easier and more natural. And why should we do it? Because it’s a wonderful thing to do and both the giver and receiver get something from it.

  11. greg digiovanni says:

    I’ve receved numerous recognition awards; plaques, framed certificates, engraved objects and even a mounted crystal eagle. The few that had the greatest impact on me were simple handwritten cards from VPs expressing their appreciation for the effort I had contibuted to one of their projects. Knowing that they had taken their most precious resource, time, to write a simple note made a lasting impression on me.

  12. Pingback: Recognition

  13. John,
    It seems to me that as a business grows it feels the need to become more “formal” and ushers in formal recognition programs. I have often wondered what happened to the day when “good job!” and “thank you!” were given more often by leaders. It is interesting that in the military we have a formal award recognition program (normally on a quarterly and annual basis) that everyone is “fighting for”. The most frustrating thing is when the supervisor goes to a subordinate and says “Hey, I want to put you in for an award so email me all the things you have been doing for the last quarter” It might be difficult to keep track of 25+ individual members accomplishments but a supervisor should at least have some idea of the things he/she wants to recognize them for. When they do this it totally discounts the award program.

  14. Pingback: My links of the week (weekly) | lateral thinking

  15. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    This is a great blog John – sometimes the simplest words have the furthest reach.
    It appears such an easy and obvious gesture, but as you say, so often neglected within the work place – and reminders such as this can be just the inspiration that is needed.

    What I find interesting is the words themselves – many of us live and work in a global culture where there are different processes and ways to verbalise appreciation, praise and gratitude from one country to another– In Chinese (Cantonese) there is a different word for thanking for a gift and thanking for a service.

    We berate our children for not using the two words over the simplest things as we raise them, and yet some of those very same children (and parents) rarely hear them or use them as adults in the work place for simple actions, let alone complex achievements. Is that not a paradox?

    Some cultures “thank” far less than we do and even regard it as meaningless at the rate we desire it! Not because they don’t like to show gratitude but because they would rather use “praise” and “appreciation” to recognise good things as and when they might be appropriate – and they have separate words for those gestures. “thank you” can after all, be quite throw-away words with little meaning in some cases (as a previous commenter alluded to)

    What is important in any language, like the example you give of the landscape gardener, is how you qualify your gratitude – how you articulate and recognise the good work (as you did). I recently received a message on our social platform from a colleague I have never met before which was perhaps one of the most appreciative I have ever received over a specific project – and yet “thank you” wasn’t in the message at all. It was the words that qualified her appreciation that meant more.

    Is resolving the paradox of recognition also about understanding how we and all the cultures we work with in our global communities use language to communicate thanks and how we respond to the different ways that recognition and praise can be articulated ?
    Language is after all the basis of every communication whether digital or in real time.
    As you say ‘Thank you’ is a great starting point
    But a long way from the end point of true recognition?

    thank you

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you Marie-Lousie and everyone who read the post. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of thank yous this post generated.

      And yes, “thank you” is but one (important) part of recognition.

      One of the best parts of “The Carrot Principle” was their suggested framework for recognition, including monetary guidelines. If someone is helpful, then thank you is great. If someone singlehandedly saves the company, then you’d want to say and thank AND recognize that accomplishment differently. The framework offered some practical guidelines to deal with those differences.

      Perhaps my real point is that we want to try and cultivate a culture of gratitude. Imagine a company where people were mindful and appreciative of others in the firm. That seems like a powerful foundation and makes any recognition framework much more likely to be genuine and to succeed.

      I have a few ideas for some things I will try… Stay tuned. 🙂

  16. Paul Marciano says:

    Wondering if you’re read: “Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work” and your thoughts. Paul

  17. Pingback: Ask Me Anything (or how to steal the best ideas for making work better) | johnstepper

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