Ya Better Recognize

Recently, I’ve picked up Psychologically Healthy Organizations from the APA to learn more about, among other things, the importance of recognition in the workplace. Here I want to share some highlights from the APA’s work on employee recognition in the workplace.

Recognition Meaningfully Shapes Performance

The authors of Peopleware make some strong claims about team composition and the extent to which people can change in the workplace:

For most efforts, success or failure is in the cards from the moment the team is formed and the initial directions set out…managers are unlikely to change their people in any meaningful way.…So the people who work for you through whatever period will be more or less the same at the end as they were at the beginning. If they’re not right for the job from the start, they never will be.

Looking back on it, this is one of the more annoying passages of the book, as it makes an extremely strong claim with merely anecdotal evidence. The APA provides a nice, evidence-backed counter-point here:

We know from extensive research that human behavior is shaped by its consequences and that providing positive consequences for employee performance is one of the most powerful ways to enhance performance.

This is useful for me to keep in mind, as I’ve made the mistake in the past of believing that some folks are just “bad apples” when its more likely that there’s something problematic about the way in which they are being lead or incentivized.1

Recognition done right

Recognition done right has to be timely and the form the recognition takes must be meaningful to the receiver.

Their claim that timeliness seems to rest on more general claims about human conditioning. Interestingly, one of the implications of timeliness is that: “saving up individual recognition for an annual performance appraisal or rewards banquet can be counterproductive.”2

One interesting idea they suggested that would likely increase timeliness of recognition is to rotate responsibility for who gives recognition at regular meetings. There’s a bit of a trade-off here, however, since this can hurt “contingency” – people may feel like they have to give recognition even if there is nothing worth recognizing.3

Timeliness and frequency of recognition may be sub-optimal in an organization because recognition itself may need to be reinforced for managers and employees. The chapter contains a section about convincing managers to recognize more and the authors say,

The trick lies in finding a catalyst–an event or trigger mechanism that will help low-use managers personally experience recognition in a positive, meaningful way.

One possible solution that jumped to my mind here is to recognize folks who do an exemplary job of recognizing others. A strong culture of recognition doesn’t come for free, so it makes sense that there may need to be some work to cultivate that culture.

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to recognition. They had some interesting ideas for ensuring that recognition given is consistently valuable to the recipients within an organization.

One idea is practiced at a company acquired by Bank of America. They have their managers ask employees on their first day to create a list of things that motivate them. Managers ended up with an “individualized motivation checklist for every employee.” In general, they seem to recommend involving employees in decisions about the form recognition takes since this increases “the employees’ commitment and buy-in and the likelihood that what is done will be successful.”


  1. Of course, I don’t want to go to the other extreme and say something silly like what Simon Sinek says, “Its never the people. Its always the environment.” Again, very strong claim with merely anecdotal evidence. Probably, sometimes, its the people. [return]
  2. This doesn’t mean they are against annual rewards. Later on, they recommend a recognition plan that includes annual awards. [return]
  3. If peers are the ones responsible for doing the recognition, this could make timliness even better, since peers may have more time and visibility into reognition worthy behaviors, but this variant of the idea trades on the “significance of the provider” consideration since the recognizers here are peers, not someone with status in the organization. [return]