Why Good Recognition Is Not Like a Flea Circus

July 10, 2012 Darcy Jacobsen

Fleas in costumes

A comment on the blog the other morning has got me thinking about definitions. In it, Paul Hebert suggested we all could use a better universal definition of the word “recognition,” and I realized he’s right. Recognition is one of those terms that we all use very differently. It deserves to be better defined.

But really, can it be? Technically speaking, the definition for employee recognition is this:  Anything and everything anyone in an organization does to acknowledge, praise, and appreciate the effort, success, and achievements of colleagues. But that could take any form. And I mean ANY form. It could be tracked, or not. It could be practical, or not. It could be effective, or not. In fact, some forms of recognition with tiny winners’ circles— like an employee of the month program—could actually be detrimental to morale and engagement.

The problem with defining recognition is this: most of us, when we talk about recognition, are actually talking about effective recognition. And effective recognition is ultimately defined by the recipient. What might be intended as recognition when it left the source can be perceived very differently by the recipient. A lot depends on your point of view

It reminds me of a great quote from the 1950 film All About Eve, when the title character asks Bill, the director, why he’d want to go to Hollywood and leave the theatre. He says:

The theater, the theater – what book of rules says the theater exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? Or London, Paris, or Vienna? Listen, junior. And learn. Want to know what the theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band – all theater. Wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience— there’s theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and the Lone Ranger. Sarah Bernhardt and Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable, Rex the Wild Horse, Eleanora Duse — they’re all theater. You don’t understand them, you don’t like them all— why should you? The theater’s for everybody— you included, but not exclusively— so don’t approve or disapprove. It may not be your theater, but it’s theater for somebody, somewhere.

I love that quote. And it’s true. The theatre (and recognition) is unique for everyone. But let’s face it, some of those theatres Bill mentions have more impact than others. (When was the last time you went to a flea circus?) Some are more effective.

The same is true for recognition. It is a big tent; and as I said, there are as many different definitions as there are people. Is an employee of the month program recognition? Sure. Is a pat on the back? Yup. An award from a peer? Absolutely. But not all those types of recognition are equally effective.

So how do you define effective recognition? Well, luckily, studies have shown there are some constants. It is frequent. It is social. It is proportionate. It offers a big winner’s circle. It fits with company culture. And really effective recognition, from a business perspective, is also strategic.

That, I can define: Strategic Recognition is recognition (see above) that is aligned with and reinforces company values, that is timely and frequent, that reinforces desirable behavior, that integrates with business goals, and that is consistent, universal and measurable.  

This may not amount to an exhaustive definition of recognition, but it’s as close as I think we can get. In the end, the point is this: Find out what makes your employees feel recognized, then do it. That’s it. That’s recognition. Then just make that recognition as effective and strategic as you can, so that it pays dividends for your employee engagement and your business.

And steer clear of flea circuses.

Previous Article
The Ridiculously High Cost of Employee Turnover
The Ridiculously High Cost of Employee Turnover

Detailed and careful calculations show even a moderate turnover level in the lowest-paid employees result i...

Next Article
How Bad Performance Management Killed Microsoft’s Edge
How Bad Performance Management Killed Microsoft’s Edge

We review a recent Vanity Fair piece examining Microsoft's failed performance management processes and how ...