HR Roundtable: Why Recognition Matters

With summer firmly upon us, the June (Cincinnati) HR Roundtable gathered to discuss a topic that often is misunderstood and glossed over with catch phrases and incentive programs – recognition.

If you step back and consider this, companies, and especially HR, have watered down recognition into a point system to earn some tchotchke that will be forgotten and dusty within months. So, this Roundtable decided to look at things from a different vantage point and discuss, “Why Recognition Matters.” Here were the three questions people started gnawing on:

  1. Why do managers struggle with recognition?
  2. Why has recognition become a generational issue?
  3. How can we recognize people more consistently?

Contrary to the thought that the Roundtable would have fewer people in the summer, we actually had the largest attendance to date this year! All 137 people present jumped into the questions and came back with some great insights.

1. Why do managers struggle with recognition?

We don’t listen — This is often overstated, but it’s a fact. Managers are typically consumed with getting things done. Productivity is the goal regardless of how it gets done. We’re much more comfortable with doing than we are communicating with others. Some feel that this just gets in the way of being effective. Please note that recognition can never even try to be established if you aren’t willing to listen to others intentionally. It just won’t happen.

Fear (in many forms) — This answer opened up several “fears.” We fear that if we recognize someone incorrectly that we may offend them or others. That is just stunning that we’ve become so gun shy in interacting with others that the first doubt that creeps in is the fear of being offensive.

It was also noted that we fear recognizing others because they might do well and take our position. Yikes! How staggering is this? However, it can be a reality. It’s sad to think that we wouldn’t recognize the work and accomplishments of others because it could make us look bad.

We’re built to look at the negative side of thingsThis crushed Steve because it’s unfortunately true. People live in the world of “what’s wrong” or “that’s not good enough.” HR systems are built on gaps, shortcomings and weaknesses. We measure what we miss, far more than what we accomplish. This doesn’t make this approach “right,” but it is how most people view work, other people and life in general. (Insert heavy sigh from Steve.)

Managers don’t like recognition being a forced program — When recognition becomes programmatic, it dies. I know that’s a strong stance, but whenever people feel they are forced to do something, they fight against it. So, what is meant to be structure and direction becomes reluctance and resistance. There are better ways to encourage and have recognition occur than a formal program.

Recognition isn’t an annual occurrence — However, we’ve made it seem that way with the idea that performance reviews are recognition vehicles. They aren’t and never have been. When we’ve built systems that allow for recognition to be compartmentalized and set aside for a set time/date within a year of someone’s existence, how can we expect folks to think that they’re genuinely being recognized?

Recognition isn’t an expectation of a manager’s role — This seems like such a simple oversight, but we assume that managers understand the people side of their roles. It often isn’t the case. Managers are often overlooked as employees themselves. We’re more concerned that they have a written job description and that a job vacancy is filled more than we are in training/coaching/developing managers to be successful leading humans. It’s a great opportunity for growth. We have to stop letting managers focus on things and teach them instead to work with humans.

2. Why has recognition become a generational issue?

When Steve posed this question, there was an audible gasp in the room. He brought it up because there tends to be a sentiment that one generation is filled with hard working, loyal and self-driven employees where another one isn’t – at least to some degree. It’s not true, but we keep allowing it to exist as a thread in company fabrics. So, let’s see what people had to say.

We think age defines people — It doesn’t, but it’s an easy marker to point to and put people in boxes. The boxes are never fully descriptive or accurate, but we do it anyway. Age is a fact. However, people are far more than the number of years they’ve lived on the planet or worked at an organization. We need to quit having this be something that is divisive. It isn’t healthy for organizations to do this.

The struggle of hierarchy — Organizations, even the most “open” ones, are built as hierarchies. We still have linear and layered org charts either posted on walls or sitting in company documents. The challenge is that younger workers grew up in groups. It is far more natural for them to thrive in collaborative environments than it is to make sure they fall into some imaginary reporting line. It’s awesome that they expect feedback on a regular basis and not just when their boss is supposed to give it through a performance review. The reality of two schools of thought needs to figure out how to make this a hybrid. Those companies that do will succeed.

We live in a segmented society — This is a very curious notion because people express they want inclusion which is awesome. However, most want inclusion along with making sure someone is labeled and identified into at least one segment. It’s hard to practice diversity and inclusion only if people fit into self-claimed boxes. There is nothing wrong with affiliating and identifying with a single group or a myriad of them. However, if people lead with their identification of a group first vs. being a holistic human who also sees themselves with many facets, we will separate from each other. This is a touchy topic where people take sides instead of having dialogue. Dialogue is needed and should be on-going. We would be better if we chose to understand each other vs. segment each other.

Preconceived notions hinder us — It’s amazing how many assumptions we make regarding other people. We lump people into one stereotype or another without talking to someone to get to know them as a person. Recognition would look so healthy and vibrant in organizations if we would push past our preconceptions and talk to each other. It’s a simple fix, but takes an incredible effort to break paradigms.

3. How can we recognize people more consistently?

Be more consistent — After a ton of laughter around this answer, it actually makes sense. Recognition needs to be an on-going reality in both good times and rough times. It can range from something as simple as thanking and acknowledging someone coming to work, to an all-out celebration for a new milestone being reached. Being more consistent takes recognition away from being a program to being a behavior.

Article Continues Below

Practice being positive — This is more than just not being negative. However, if we are wired to be negative, then we will need to practice being positive. It won’t just magically happen. See what works for you and for those in your organization and teach folks how to be genuinely positive. The more we see the best in others, the better performance you’ll experience from them and from yourself.

Be intentional and schedule time to recognize others — This is the next step past practicing. Recognition of others will matter to you if you are intentional in your approach, behavior and actions. If structure works for you, then schedule time for recognition. The more it becomes a habit, the less you’ll need to schedule over time because it will become part of your regular day at work.

Teach don’t tell — Recognition, as most behaviors, is more successful when it is modeled by you first. Just telling someone they should recognize others will fall flat. People will nod their heads in acceptance and then never change their actions. If you initiate recognition by being consistent yourself, you’ll see it start to take hold in others.

Understand it’s what people want — Ever since we were young, we’ve wanted to be recognized. It fills our tank and gives us self-worth. This doesn’t change as we age. Since recognition has a positive effect on all of us, that should be motivation enough to make it part of the fabric of our company cultures. Let’s quit trying to create recognition, let’s give it on purpose instead.

This was another great session. Please note that we plan to meet through the summer months and into the rest of the year. I hope you can make it a part of your day to be a regular HR Roundtable attendee. We’re better when you come and share your knowledge and experience. I want to encourage you to come and be at the Roundtable in person!

Steve Browne

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at sbrowne@larosas.com, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.