How do I actually use recognition? Is there more to it than just saying, Thanks ... nice job"?

Yes, there is more to it, but not much more.

The most importantand most ignoredrequirement to make recognition an effective motivational tool is the notion of earned or contingent recognition. If we want to make the recognition we provide actually have a motivational stimulus, the recognition that the individual receives must be contingent on that person's having done something that is worthy of being recognized. If we just recognize people as a nice human relations tactic, then our recognition efforts will have no motivational value at all.

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Too often, the reason that recognition fails to generate motivation (measurable increases in job satisfaction and job performance) is that the recognition effort isn't connected to anything the person has done. For example, consider the manager who makes a point of greeting each of her employees with a friendly remark every morning. She sends each staff member a card on the person's birthday and regularly springs for a Friday all-hands pizza party. She makes a point of making herself available to talk any time a staff member has a concern and goes out of her way to approve requests for schedule changes and training program participation. With all that good stuff she's providing, she should have a highly motivated staff, right?

Not necessarily. What's missing here is the notion of contingent recognition. Regardless of the quality of Daniel's work, he's greeted warmly every morning as he enters the office. Whether Samantha's done a good job or a bad job, her request for training is approved. The office star and the office goof-off are both invited to the pizza party. There's no connection between employee performance and the good things that happen at the office. As a result, all these good things the supervisor does have no motivational value.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing that a manager shouldn't create an office environment where people feel welcomed and appreciated. Doing so will remove a source of dissatisfaction. But it won't motivate people to work harder or do better, since no matter how hard they work the same pleasant outcomes are provided.

What is needed for recognition to work is for the good things that happen to be connected to the good job that the person does. If the good things a manager does for employees are done on a random basis, then what you will get back is random behavior. Recognition must be tightly connected with job performance if it's going to affect job performance.

Won't some peoplethe better performersend up getting more recognition than others who don't perform as well? Isn't that discriminatory?

Yes, it is discriminatory. If some people do better work than others do, then they should get more recognition. The better, more productive employees will get more freedom to act and more Post-its saying "Thanks" stuck to their computer monitors. They will be allowed more flexibility in their schedules and get first choice when interesting new projects arise. And they will have earned these advantages because they make a more valuable contribution to the organization. It's okay to discriminate on the basis of performance.

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There is a pernicious myth in organizations that says that everyone has to be treated the samethat you can't do something for one employee without doing it for all employees. That is not true. What the law prohibits is treating people differently based on factors that have nothing to do with their job performance: race, age, sex, national origin, and so on. But there is no law prohibiting organizations from treating people differently based on the quality of their work.

There are two kinds of rewards in organizational life: the obligatory rewards and the discretionary rewards. Obligatory rewards are those things that everyone is entitled to, regardless of how well they do their jobs. Some examples: a paycheck that arrives when it's due and does not bounce, a clean, safe, and healthy work environment, equal access to the company's benefit plans, an environment free of any form of harassment.

No manager can diddle with the obligatory rewards the organization offers in an attempt to raise motivation. He can't double Mary's insurance reimbursement from having her appendix out because she did a particularly good job in bringing in new accounts, nor can he deny Fred's legitimate tuition reimbursement request because Fred has been late to work too often. The obligatory rewards have to be provided exactly according to policy until the day that the employee quits, retires, is fired, or dies.

Discretionary rewards are different, though. Here the manager is allowed to exercise great control over who gets what. He can decide that because Mary did such a great job in building new accounts he's going to allow her to serve on the annual event committee instead of

Fred. He can also refuse to allow Fred time off to attend the marketing society's convention until his attendance record improves. He is not obliged to allow Fred to attend; giving Fred permission is at his discretion.

The wise manager actively uses discrimination in doling out recognition, making sure that high performers get a lot of the discretionary rewards and that poorer performers get proportionately less.

Won't people complain when I deliberately treat some people better than others? Won't I be accused of favoritism?

Yes, they will complain. Yes, you will be accused of favoritism. That's okay.

Consider where the complaints are coming fromthe poorer performers. If you treat everyone exactly alike, regardless of performance, you will also get complaints. But this time those complaints will originate with your best workers, the ones you least want to provoke complaints from.

The manager who strives to make everyone happy and satisfied is pursuing a foolish course. The manager's job is to make sure that some peoplethe better performersare very happy and very satisfied. And if the poorer performers feel that that's unfair, all the manager needs to do is explain to them what they need to do to move up into the realm of the higher performers.

The primary requirement for successful performance management is courage. Being a good manager requires some skills, but most people have the capability to learn those skills and apply them reasonably well. What ordinary managers lack is courage: the courage to accept that some people do perform better than others do, and to use discretion in handing out formal and informal rewards.

 
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