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Caught In The Act - How to acknowledge people without turning them off
By Jody Urquhart   Printer Friendly Version

"This project was my baby for over a year. After all the hours I invested, management had the nerve to pat me on the back and give me a cheap gold pen. How patronizing! I have news for them-I didn't do all that hard work for empty praise or a cheap prize. I did it because I'm the best person for the job. I wanted to see it happen and it did. This makes it feel like my accomplishments are ordinary. I didn't just fix the fax machine or something."

Everybody likes to be acknowledged and appreciated for their efforts. Or do they? Most companies have a formal way of acknowledging employees with such things as annual award banquets, top sales awards and certificates. There are a couple major pitfalls to these programs:

1) the reward is handed down from management and reinforces imbalances in power;
2) it can be patronizing to receive a small award for a large accomplishment;
3) the accomplishment is often a team effort. It fosters resentment when just one person gets the reward;
4) it creates competition;
5) the most common flaw of award programs is they often reward people for doing work they were supposed to do anyway.

The best form of acknowledgment is grounded in the idea that people work because they are committed and want to work. This assumes people work for reasons other than a paycheque at the end of the week or an award at the end of a project. Many people do work for these external reasons but sometimes this is because the workplace encourages them to. Work and accomplishment is natural and should be treated as such. As Alfie Kohn observes in Punish by Reward, "When responsible action, the natural love of learning, and the desire to do good work are already part of who we are, then the tacit assumption to the contrary can be fairly described as dehumanizing."

A Culture of Appreciation

How do you acknowledge others? To answer this, consider a company with an attitude of appreciation that is a routine part of every day. Everyone is continually appreciating everyone else. You don't have to be a manager to acknowledge someone else. Employees are aware of the specific projects or roles their colleagues are involved in and what their strengths are, and are on the lookout to catch people doing well. This culture assumes people are out to do their best and regularly notices them doing it. Sincere and genuine appreciation is forthcoming. Employees are at their best because their standards of excellence are their own.

Keys to Better Performance

How do you create this kind of a culture of appreciation?

1) Avoid awards that set people apart from each other, such as programs for the top sales person. Only one person can win this award, so only few will try. It also separates winners from losers. Instead have employees aim at beating their own sales from the previous month;
2) let employees set their own goals, help them understand how it helps the team and company, and acknowledge their contribution;
3) encourage employees to acknowledge others daily. Set up an informal network, like a newsletter or bulletin board where people can brag about their colleagues;
4) give employees the opportunity during meetings to talk about what they accomplished that week. In other words, let them brag about themselves;
5) recognize people for their strengths on more than specific projects or achievements. How does each individual's strength contribute to the team as a whole?
6) make every employee aware of other's strengths and give them a chance to learn from one another;
7) continually recognize the achievements of the group as a whole. Savor the feeling of achievement;
8) reinforce the value of the work itself. How employees function contributes to the community and their customers;
9) celebrate the vision of where the company is going and how the group, made up of the individuals in it, is helping get there;
10) design incentives to award departments as a whole, where everyone is awarded for the group's accomplishments.

Bottom Line

Companies with an attitude of appreciation are proud of the achievements of all employees and departments. They are aware of the strengths of each individual in helping realize the corporate vision. Communicating this vision is their strong point. Acknowledging people this way can dramatically change the way people interact with each other and with customers.

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