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5 Common Mistakes of Workplace Recognition Programs

There’s a lot of buzz these days about recognition programs in the workplace and for good reasons. Recognition programs can make fantastically positive contributions to your workforce and your workplace culture. But, like many things in life, the devil can roost in the details. Let’s talk about FIVE common pitfalls that can unwittingly take a program raised from good intentions and positive feelings and watch as it undermines productivity, unravels cohesiveness and poisons your workplace culture.

1) Nonexistent – The first pitfall that companies and organizations run into when they attempt to recognize their employees is…well, many organizations simply don’t have one! Their recognition program is nonexistent. Not having a recognition program can diminish empowerment, reduce productivity and lead to employee turnover.

All of these outcomes are easily traced back to far greater financial losses than it costs to create and operate a program in the first place. When evaluating your organization’s philosophy on the spectrum between the carrot and the stick, not having a recognition program plants your organization firmly in the stick camp. Without a conscious carrot program all that is left from an HR point of view is progressive disciplinary actions. Stick, stick and more stick when we know, on the carrot end of the spectrum, that recognizing employees, when done well, when done right, can be an asset to creating a positive workplace culture where employees feel good about where they work everyday.

2) Too infrequent – The second thing that some companies do in recognition programs that can cause more harm than good is to apply the program too infrequently. If formal recognition comes up only rarely, it fails to embed the benefits of a recognition program into the overall culture. We know in studying workplace cultures that those organizations that are more innovative, more profitable, and truly more productive have cultures motivated by the carrot, motivated by recognition, by empowerment, and by positivity versus negativity. Recognition programs must be felt frequently enough so that people do not feel like they are steeling themselves for the long slog between recognitions.

3) Big Wins ONLY! – The third mistake that some workplace cultures make is in only celebrating the Big Wins. Celebrating only the big wins creates two problems. One, it excludes those people who are working hard on the everyday tasks. They need recognition, just like the people who are hitting the home runs. Two, it accelerates burn out. If you’re holding off on recognition or a celebration for the big, long haul, people get burned out along the way. Also you miss the opportunity to champion everyone through the minor steps, the smaller wins along the way where you can say, “Hey, I recognize you. You’re doing a good job.” People, when they show up in any organization, want to feel valued. They want to feel trusted and they want to feel respected. If managers and leadership within the organization are not articulating that value and that respect on a regular basis, people will feel burnt out and they will let the daily grind overcome their sense of joy. When you don’t have a sense of joy in the workplace, productivity suffers every time. And, that’s when people begin to prick up their ears for other opportunities for employment – elsewhere!

4) Prejudiced – The fourth mistake that some organizations make in their recognition programs is to provide recognition only to the leadership, to supervisors or managers or C-suite employees. An excellent strategy for rescuing your program from being a top only program is by building in the opportunity for peer recognition. When you feel trusted, valued, and respected amongst your peers, you also stand up a little taller in your work. You enjoy being at work. You want to get good things done. People like to be recognized AND they also like the opportunity to recognize others. When we practice gratitude and generosity with other people, we feel good. It becomes a win-win situation. Peer recognition also helps raise the joy level, the positivity level, and it helps undercut some of the negativity that may dwell in your workplace culture.

5) Stand Alone – Then the fifth and final component that I see people misunderstanding with their recognition program is believing that this is the ONLY element needed to create a positive and productive workplace culture. Yes, it is an important component. But please know that it is not the only component. If you have a negative or toxic workplace culture in any area, in any way, and you layer on a positive recognition program, it will ring false. It will seem hollow. The recognition program has to be supported by creating a whole workplace culture that is positive, productive, and profitable.

The driving force for your recognition program has to be system-wide integration with your operational practices. It has to be integral with your processes, with your programs, and with your workplace culture. It can not be a stand alone, easily forgettable or easily ignored program. There have to be ties between the recognition program and other calendar and operational events that trigger its use – consistently, democratically and sincerely.

Take the time to look at your culture through the lens of how are people being recognized. 1) Does it exist? 2) Is it frequent enough? 3) Is it both big and small? 5) Are people recognizing each other? 6) Is it part of a consciously positive workplace culture? Ensuring that your program provides positive answers to these questions will help you navigate around the most frequent pitfalls of implementing a workplace recognition program.