A Controversial Note on Recognition

© Steve Whiteford 2023

Employee Recognition has been a popular trend for several years, but from my observation and experience has some challenges. Studies have proven that recognition programs increase employee motivation, productivity, and happiness. Yet I’ve also witnessed and experienced that it can be a task to get people engaged in the process, beyond it being a fun game that falls flat over time. Recognition craves meaning.

Why does it feel so empty when a leader says, “Good job!” Pats you on the back and hands you a company pin? Or when you receive points to buy things you don’t need, when you’re peers have recognized you through the online recognition program?

Text Box: “Just get the job done. Suck it up Buttercup. It’s your job. Do what I say. Leave your feelings at home.”

One of the first great reads I had on recognition was in Linda Hill’s book, Becoming a Manager. She cites studies that showed when managers provided real relationships, thoughtful communication, and acknowledgment of skills, it significantly improved management results. Training managers in these skills remains a challenging task because our workplace beliefs and values remain rife with negative attitudes that place the burden of proper behavior on the employee. Despite a lot of contrary evidence and theory responsibility is largely deflected from leadership, the business environment, or the societal beliefs that support the misdirection. We still struggle with a change of concept that is no longer news.

Marcus Buckingham has championed the cause of deeper recognition with his book and program, Love + Work. He proposes that managers go a step further with recognition and notice an employee’s natural talentsand discover how to engage them, thus avoiding the all too common syndrome of forcing “square pegs into round holes.” This suggests another strong step toward a more humane workplace. But again, we face a systemic societal hurdle when our education system refocuses students’ natural tendencies to industrial needs and mostly rewards those directions.

There is another level that is also obscured by our “Social Realities” (agreed-upon beliefs) and that is the importance of self-recognition that allows us to accept any external recognition we may receive. In our culture, we tend to deny 50% of our own feelings. The emotions we have labeled “negative.” We are not skilled at recognizing our whole selves.

This is no fault of our own. Since the time of the industrial revolution, we have had a societal evolution of toxic positivity that has restricted our instinctual, biological skills for perception – our feelings. By denying our less comfortable feelings we dismiss the validity of our experience. By doing this we also lose our sense of dignity and with that our agency.

Might this be at the root of our workplace challenges? Would we have such a strong need for recognition if we were able to recognize ourselves and have agency?

Workplaces steal our power because “emotions have no place in the workplace.” We are shamed more in the workplace for any “negative” emotion we may express. We are trained only to provide solutions when having an intelligent conversation about the problem might be just what we need to share wisdom to find the best solution. For a relationship to have power, power must be shared.

Do you know that the number one reason leaders fail is that they have low Impulse control? They don’t play by the same emotional rules imposed on their employees.

The skills of emotional intelligence include recognizing, understanding, and utilizing our less comfortable emotions. When we do this, we regain our dignity, and our power is channeled through the skill of empathy. When we deeply recognize ourselves, we no longer need parental approval or recognition. We become functioning adults. Wouldn’t it be great to have a workplace in which functioning adults openly exchanged, ideas, feelings, and insights without the debilitating and exclusive hierarchy of power?

Change must be created from both the micro (individual) and macro (societal) levels.

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