I was consulting to an IT organization in which employee morale was rapidly slithering to the bottom of the employee satisfaction chart. These people, hard workers all, felt unappreciated. It was as if, no matter what they did, their managers barely noticed.
My task was to help turn things around and we were making progress. So when I attended an IT division meeting at which one of the managers excitedly announced that two employees had earned the recently implemented "Superstar Award," I cringed. Not because two individuals were being recognized for their efforts, but because 187 others weren't. And hadn't been.
Singling out two individuals for special attention is fine in theory. And in a well-run organization, it can also work in practice. But it runs a high risk of making all other employees feel that their efforts don't count unless other forms of recognition are available to the rest of the employees. And announcing the Superstar Award with great enthusiasm at a meeting at which the majority of people attending felt unnoticed and taken for granted was a blooper and a half.
When people say they want recognition, they rarely mean they want a recognition program. What they typically mean is that they want an occasional pat on the back. They want a once-in-a-while attaboy. They want a manager to say, "You've been working hard and I want you to know I noticed." They want a manager's manager to send an email that says, "Nice job." They want an occasional, "Thank you for your efforts." They want to know that someone in authority notices they're working hard and appreciates it. What's nice about this type of recognition is that it takes no time and costs nothing, yet has a big impact. Yet so many organizations fall short in doing it.
Not everyone can be a superstar. And those who truly are superstars keep rising to the top, ensuring that others—those who work hard every single day don't stand a chance of receiving special recognition. Therefore, the kind of recognition program I favor isn't a formal program, but a way of working in which every single individual in the organization stands a chance of being recognized at one time or another—even if only for doing what they're supposed to be doing.
Recognition is misguided if it singles out those who went above and beyond, while ignoring those who take their job seriously, work hard, and strive to do their best. And a recognition program that doesn't recognize the power of "thank you" and "nice job" is incomplete, no matter how many superstars it acknowledges.