Workers Want Recognition!

I spent a long part of my career working for a company whose CEO was huge on the power of recognition. (He even has a new book out about it. And it’s true; you can’t get very far if you don’t give your workers the recognition for doing a good job. Unfortunately, for knowledge workers, being recognized for stepping up to the plate to hit a home run is the tip of the iceberg. Recognizing someone for doing a good job is nice, but isn’t the expectation that workers will do a good job? Why are you still paying workers if doing a good job isn’t an every day occurrence?

Ok, maybe you are recognizing people for doing a “good job” but a great job. You’re still on a hedonic treadmill here. If a “great job” is truly exceptional, then you aren’t rewarding your employees that often. When a “great job” is routine, then why aren’t you shifting your expectations and paying accordingly?

Spot rewards are nice, but can be demotivating

There is nothing like found money (or praise), but it generally is spent quickly. (Unless your spot rewards are allowing the employee to take a year off or retire, but that would seem to defeat the purpose.)

If you’re leaning on spot rewards, then you may be training your employees to set gradually lower expectations, then beat them for rewards. Oh, no raises this year? Well, I can always game the rewards system!

Invest in people

Make permanent commitments to the reward you’re giving by delivering a raise and higher expectations. This is excellent, and I would like to see this continue… in expectation of this continued performance, here’s a larger financial commitment from us.

Give your people whatever tools they need to perform at a higher level. Offer the training. Provide educational resources. Send them to conferences. Allocate time for them to develop themselves. If you can’t afford a 2-5% contribution to potentially improve an employee by 10%, then you may not have any idea what you’re doing with that employee. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the business of employing those people and should find someone else to hire them and pay that company for effective use of those resources.

Invest in capacity

Stop skirting by just barely making your commitments. If you don’t have excess capacity, the minute something goes wrong, you’re in trouble. The alternative is depending on heroics from your employees. Heroics are like firefighting: Yes, they put the fire out, but now everything is water-damaged, and your firefighters will get sloppy and exhausted if used too often.

Invest in figuring out what is reasonable to do

Yes, you are in competition with everyone else who wants to please your customers, but all those customers you’re gaining are going to bail if your people break down and can’t perform.


You cannot put a price tag on trust.

Trust your employees to:

  • appreciate the capability you’ve given them.
  • be capable of working wherever.
  • work whenever they need to.

If you don’t know what results you want or the value of those results, keeping employees in the office from 8 to 5 is an expensive way to hide that fact. If you can’t trust an employee to get things done, then it doesn’t matter where they’re working, they’re going to make a fool of you at some point, and it will probably take you longer to figure it out if your measure of productivity is whether they’re in the seat or not.

Risk vs Volatility

As Taleb mentions in Black Swan, there’s a difference between risk and volatility. Trusting your employees seems like a risk, but you’re really lowering volatility of bad experiences near term in exchange for systemic risk of trust issues. So are all these other investments in your employees. Not making the investments may be penny-wise, but they’re pound foolish.

I Didn’t Get Any Cake

Milton Waddams in Office Space:

Nina: Now Milton, don’t be greedy, let’s pass it along and make sure everyone gets a piece.
Milton Waddams: Yeah, but last time I didn’t receive a piece. And I was told…
Nina: Just pass.
[while the cake passes Milton mutters – eventually everybody but Milton gets a piece]
Milton Waddams: [muttering] I could set the building on fire.

When you start getting your meetings bumped, your invitations dumped, and not receiving cake–is there any other conclusion than Milton’s underlying suspicion that he’s intentionally being choked off?

I understand that the time of one person at a higher level is more valuable, but one wasted hour of a higher level employee can erode hours worth of productivity. Bump people sparingly. Respect their time.

You Do This Well, But You Could Improve That…

The Problem

Tragic mask on the façade of the Royal Dramati...
Image via Wikipedia

Providing feedback that praises, and then offers suggestions for improvement.

I’ve always wondered why such a method left a bad taste in my mouth, but I came across one possible explanation in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.  The peak-end rule proposes that:

…we judge our past experiences almost entirely on how they were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended. Other information is not lost, but it is not used. This includes net pleasantness or unpleasantness and how long the experience lasted.

A description of one experiment demonstrating this rule is contained in Determinants of the Remembered Utility of Aversive Sounds (Schreiber/Kahneman)

…participants had two experiences of immersing one hand in painfully cold water.

The short trial lasted 60 s, with water temperature at 14 °C.
The long trial lasted 90 s; the temperature was 14 °C for
the first 60 s, then rose gradually to 15 °C over the next
30 s–still unpleasant, but a distinct improvement for most

When they were later given a choice of which
trial to repeat, a significant majority of participants chose to
repeat the long trial. This preference violates logic, because
adding pain to an aversive episode cannot make it better

A Possible Improvement on the Constructive Feedback Technique

Toastmasters uses a sandwich technique [good-bad-good], but the challenge is that the Serial position effect might cause the criticism necessary for improvement to be lost.  However, this modified sandwich technique might provide the benefits of offering constructive criticism while still producing a more positive result at the end:

  1. Sandwich Layer: Bread
    Evaluation Element: Praise – strengths exhibited by the speaker
  2. Sandwich Layer: Condiments
    Evaluation Element: Areas for improvement – where can the speaker improve
  3. Sandwich Layer: Meat, cheese, vegetables
    Evaluation Element: Specific suggestions – how can the speaker improve
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Not Realizing There is a Problem Until the Annual Survey?

If it takes until the annual employee satisfaction survey comes out to realize that you have a problem, “listening” to employee ideas probably won’t help much.

Some possibilities here:

  1. Your organization doesn’t have enough trust for everyone having a problem to be able to communicate that problem to the next level and have each level of management propagate that knowledge OR address it.
  2. You don’t have enough contact with your employees to recognize there is a problem yourself. If you see one person forcing a smile at every team gathering–that’s a Grumpy Coworker.  If you see a whole team doing it, that’s a Problem.
  3. Your employees are getting paid by your competitors to say they’re disgruntled.

One of the above possibilities does not belong with the others.