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 important—and most ignored—requirement 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.