Why Managers Fail to Recognize Employee Contributions

February 18, 2013 Leigh Branham

Occasionally we feature a guest blogger who brings new perspectives on key issues in the worlds of culture, engagement and recognition. This week we welcome Leigh Branham, founder of Keeping the People, Inc. and author of “The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave.”

After 20 years of researching the drivers of employee engagement, I have concluded that the mother lode of motivation come from what I call the C-A-R Cycle

  • Giving employees a Achieve
  • Having them Achieve
  • Making sure they are promptly Recognized

Yet, sadly, about four out of every five employee contributions go unrecognized, according to at least one study. These management errors of omission are costly missed opportunities to pump up engagement levels. So, it seems only logical to try and understand why so many managers fail to recognize. After reading more than 100,000 verbatim comments from surveys submitted in Best-Places- to-Work competitions, I’ve identified 13 reasons managers fall short when it comes to recognizing their people—each of which is understandable, but unacceptable:

  • They believe they are too busy to take the time. This is usually a failure of the culture that has either overloaded their managers as doers rather than delegators or, has somehow communicated to managers that recognizing employees is not an essential part of their job.
  • They actually have the time, but are not paying enough attention to the employee’s performance to notice the contribution. Many managers are simply more task-focused than people-focused, and have their heads down looking at their to-do lists.
  • They believe “if you don’t hear from me, it means you’re doing a good job.” I’ve personally heard this one from more than one manager. It’s an abdication of manager responsibility in the guise of giving the employee autonomy. And managers should bear in mind what the renowned psychologist William James once said: “The deepest principal in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” 
  • They believe “employees shouldn’t expect me to pat them on the back all the time for just doing their jobs …their paycheck should be enough.” This perspective is quite common and reveals a basic misunderstanding of human psychology. On the contrary, the pats on the back should be reserved for acknowledging extra effort, not “for just doing their jobs.”  Yes, some employees have been given too many ribbons, but most know it when they have added value and when they have not, and they know it when a pat on the back is robotic and insincere.”
  • They are unsure about how best to recognize, so they do nothing. This is easy enough to understand; people tend not to do things when they’re not exactly sure on how to do them. But this one is also the easiest to correct—by training managers in the basic principles and how-to’s of effective recognition.
  • They never received much praise or recognition themselves, so they aren’t inclined to give it to others. Again, understandable but not excusable. In fact, many managers who practice recognition most effectively do so because they know what it’s like not to be recognized.
  • They believe employees will think they are phony and insincere if they suddenly start praising them. It’s OK for a manager to tell their direct reports they’ve decided to start doling out praise when it’s merited. The key is to notice and praise a specific above-and-beyond contribution and describe how much it meant to the business, not just go around patting people on the back and saying “you’re doing a great job.”
  • They are concerned that if they give special recognition to some, others will feel unfairly overlooked. Employees usually know who deserves to be recognized and who doesn’t. The mistake some managers make is praising the team as a whole when it was really one individual that carried the ball, or singling out one person when it was a team accomplishment.
  • They harbor a fundamental disrespect for some types of work or workers. I once heard a manager say “A monkey could do that job.” I’ve also noticed a tendency to devalue employees in support departments in companies that are otherwise sales-or expertise-driven. This is clearly a massive mistake; all jobs and contributions are worthy of respect.
  • They believe employees know they’re replaceable and shouldn’t expect to receive special treatment. This one is endemic to the current economy. Too many leaders are counting on a poor job market to motivate employee loyalty. Are we really motivated by “You should feel lucky to have a job”?
  • They don’t believe they should have to pay employees above market for sustained high performance or provide bonuses for special achievements. The fact is only about a third of employees believe their pay is linked to their performance. The best employers pay a premium for high performance.
  • They believe the employees they recognize will respond by asking for a raise. Some employees will indeed ask for raises, but that is a question that every manager should expect and be prepared to discuss.
  • They don’t know enough about the employees’ jobs to distinguish between average and superior performance. I’ve heard this one many times from employees in describing their managers, often in technical organizations. Managers who can’t make distinctions between average and superior performance among their direct reports should not be managing them.

There you have it—a baker’s dozen reasons. Having presented and discussed these at length with hundreds of managers, I realize that many will remain firm in their resistance to “giving too much recognition” to employees whom they see as “already too entitled,” or part of the “trophy generation who got trophies for just participating and expect more of the same at work.” Yet, when I ask audiences of all ages “How many of you get too much recognition?,” not a hand goes up–ever.

I do not advocate giving more recognition than people deserve. Those whose expectation of recognition exceeds the value they bring should receive the strong dose of reality they need—in the form of direct, fact-based feedback.

Questions to consider: Which of the above reasons, if any, do you believe are justifiable?  Which do you believe present the biggest obstacles to employee engagement?  What should companies do to address the beliefs inherent in these reasons?