Is it Possible to Give Too Much Recognition?

As we were developing an employee engagement survey with one of our clients, the CEO commented that he didn’t like the survey item: My supervisor regularly recognizes me for doing a good job. He felt that managers shouldn’t praise employees for doing something that is expected. “Every employee is already being paid to do a good job, otherwise they wouldn’t have a job. Recognition should only be given if an employee does something exceptional, not just good.”

In response, we discussed the importance of regular recognition as one of the key drivers of motivation and employee engagement. Even though employers expect employees to do a good job, regular recognition, even for expected work, leads to improved performance. Fortunately, the CEO agreed to include the question on the survey. Consequently, the results helped managers better understand how well they were recognizing their teams. 

What HR Professionals Say

According to a 2018 SHRM survey, most HR professionals agree that recognition improves many aspects of workplace culture including employee experience, relationships, culture, engagement, and happiness:

Another research study found that recognition had an impact on all retention aspects in the organizations examined.

What Employees Say

The DecisionWise global employee engagement survey database shows that most managers do a pretty good job providing regular recognition with 72% of respondents in our global database agreeing with the statement: “My supervisor regularly recognizes my efforts and contributions.”

Employees at banks and credit unions report receiving the most consistent recognition from their supervisor while those in the Accommodation and Food Services industry report the least.

Is it Possible to Give Too Much Recognition?

But can too much recognition and positive reinforcement backfire? Managers are quick to give redirecting feedback to correct problems but are sometimes reluctant to give praise. Some feel recognition is only warranted for great work. Others just don’t feel comfortable giving compliments. These poor recognition practices detract from employee engagement and weaken performance.

Ideally, to optimize engagement and motivation, managers should recognize an employee at least once a week. Another way to measure frequency of recognition is by calculating the ratio of positive and negative comments. One study found that high performing teams experience 5.6 positive comments for every negative comment. Medium-performance teams experienced a 1.9 positive to negative comment ratio. Low-performance teams experienced the reverse, almost three negative comments for every positive one. Based on these findings, it’s almost impossible to give too much recognition.

How to Give Good Recognition

Recognition fails if it is not sincere or relevant. Forcing a compliment for the sake of recognition will be obvious and can cause more harm than good. On the other hand, by focusing on seeing the good people do, and by providing sincere compliments (even for expected work), you will brighten days and reinforce positive behavior.

Good recognition is specific, frequent, and timely.

Specific – “I like the additional research you added to that report” is much more specific than “Great job on that report.” Think of something specific they accomplished. Why do you think they did a good job? How did their work make a difference?

Frequent – Set a goal to recognize each person at least once a week. Create a tracking sheet if you need to. Share recognition verbally, by email, or even by written note.

Timely – Recognition is less impactful if an employee receives it a month after they’ve completed the task. Provide feedback as close to the event as possible to help reinforce the good behavior.

Keep in mind that some people don’t like to be recognized in front of others. Simple one-on-one recognition moments work for most people. It also doesn’t need to be a formal ceremony or include a plaque or gift (although special recognition events are great). Simply look for more opportunities to recognize others and you will tune your mind to see them. It’s a simple action that will lead to increased engagement and performance.

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