What Barbra Streisand Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement

July 9, 2013 Jeff Gold

There’s an interesting scientific principle called the Streisand Effect. The term was originally coined to describe the effects of trying to censor information on the Internet, but it has also taken on a more general meaning about unintended consequences of our actions.

In simple terms, it describes how actions with an intended purpose can backfire, making things worse than if just left alone. Did I say scientific principle?  OK, maybe it’s not science, but fascinating nonetheless.

Here’s the story: Barbra Streisand, the famous singer and actress, had a beautiful Californian mansion that she didn’t want anyone photographing. One day, a photographer named Kenneth Adelman, who was working on a project to document erosion, inadvertently shot and posted a photo of Ms. Streisand’s house online. (It should be noted that Mr. Adelman took and posted over 12,000 pictures as a way to monitor erosion and environmental violations.) So, Ms. Streisand notices it and sues him to take down the pictures. She doesn’t want anyone seeing her house. The interesting twist is that up until the moment she filed suit, the picture of her house was viewed six times in total (two of those were by her lawyers). In the one month after the suit was filed and made public, the picture was viewed by more than 420,000 people! Unintended consequences for Ms. Streisand.

The Streisand Effect got me thinking about employee engagement and the roles of recognition programs. For all the best intentions, poorly constructed recognition programs can backfire on a company. Ms. Streisand’s intended purpose was to ensure that no one saw her house. Instead, she pointed a spotlight on it. This happens all the time in companies: managers try to reward their employees for doing exemplary work, but instead they show them how little they value their individuality and contributions.

Three fictitious but common examples:

  1. Evan works all weekend on a time-sensitive project. He misses his son’s hockey game, dinner with his college friends, and some much needed movie watching with his wife. When the project is completed, his grateful manager, Walter, is so impressed that he says thank you with a $50 gift card to a steak house. Nice story, right? Until you learn that Evan is a vegan, and Walter inadvertently reinforced Evan’s frustration that his manager doesn’t seem to know him very well as a person.
  2. Kathleen has worked 10 years at ABC Company. She always works hard and cares deeply about her colleagues. On her 10-year anniversary, she gets the standard gold lapel ABC pendant. All good, right? Well, it turns out that Kathleen hates pendants, never wears them and finds jewelry with company logos on them to be a bit schmaltzy. It essentially reinforces her concern that ABC Company is stuck in the last generation’s way of doing things.
  3. Mindy at ACME Inc. works nights for a week to help out a colleague in a different department with a critical project. Mindy’s the humble type and doesn’t make a big to-do about her extra efforts. In fact, her manager doesn’t even know about the time she’s putting in on it. Since ACME’s recognition program only allows for recognition to happen from managers to their direct reports, Mindy never receives recognition for her extra efforts, and it stings. Next time around, she doesn’t raise her hand to help out.

The Streisand Effect is not just for famous people. Think about how your employees feel when they get ‘rewarded’ with something that is of little value to them. Suddenly, this reward has the opposite of the intended effect. Engaged turns to disengaged. Suddenly, that recruiter that has been calling them looks a little more interesting. Disengagement leads to a loss of productivity and turnover for a company, which costs a lot more than that steak dinner or gold pin.

Thankfully, there are some ways to avoid the Streisand Effect:

  • Provide your employees with a recognition solution that offers them the power of choice. Let them decide how they want to use their recognition. This ensures that it’s relevant, powerful, and memorable for everyone.
  • Enable the entire company with a peer-to-peer solution that is simple to use. This ensures that recognition is timely and open to everyone. Empower your employees, don’t just enable them.
  • Build a strategic culture of recognition that is linked to your company’s core values. These values are lived every day and every employee should notice and recognize their colleagues consistently. A study from Modern Survey found that employees who know and understand their corporate values are 30 times more likely to be fully engaged.

People don’t value the same things equally. Next time you’re thinking about employee engagement, remember Adelman, Streisand, and the dangers of unintended consequences. Recognition done poorly can inadvertently poison the well of good will at your company. The effect of employee recognition done well can have amazing outcomes for your employees and your company.

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