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Recognize Results and Appreciate People

Driven by such devices as the balanced scorecard, companies have become increasingly enamored with measuring employee "engagement." Indeed, the new coin of the realm in “performance management” is this idea of engagement. A recent report from Towers Watson1 seeks to identify the drivers for high employee engagement—and in the process blurs the distinctions between recognition, appreciation and evaluation. Let’s explore those distinctions before returning to the notion of employee engagement.

Towers Watson found a correlation between employee engagement and recognition, and concluded that managers can boost engagement through recognition. In fact, they cite a recognition study that found that employee engagement was enhanced when the immediate boss “recognizes and appreciates good work.” But what qualifies as "recognition," and exactly what should we recognize?

For example, would saying, “Thanks, good job,” qualify as appropriate recognition for a manager to give a subordinate? We think this kind of statement is problematic for several reasons. First, it is vague feedback. While employees desire feedback—the Towers Watson report confirms this—vague feedback like “good job” will not be helpful in terms of their performance. Feedback that is specific to real results is far more relevant and effective.

Good managers identify what results are important, and they make sure the people doing the work know exactly how they're doing specific to those measures. But does saying, “Thanks, good job,” still increase engagement? Perhaps, but telling someone they are doing a good job is more than “recognizing” them; it is judging the person's performance as well—a mistake far too many managers make. Managers are just too far away from the work when it is actually done to make such judgments.

Another problem with vague, evaluative statements like, “Thanks, good job,” is that they focus on the individual. In most situations, important results occur because of the contributions of multiple people, not just one contributor. Recognizing individual contributors, especially in vague terms, is unnecessary and typically disruptive. And even if such recognition is given to an entire group, the feedback is still vague and probably misleading. Performance (as opposed to the actual results the performance generates) is difficult to evaluate and pass judgment on. Furthermore, if the goal is strictly to thank the individual, “Thanks, good job,” is a weak way to show appreciation.

To be effective, managers must provide important inputs. Specifically, they must focus on important outcomes, and let people know how they are doing with respect to those outcomes. Feedback on results (as frequent as possible) is a primary management duty. This feedback is not vague, and it is specific to the work, thus supporting individual efforts to grow and develop, which in turn leads to better performance. Effective managers also appreciate the people doing the work, but this is separate from recognizing results, and mixing the two is more confusing than helpful. Thus, thanking people is a form of appreciation—and quite different from evaluating how they did (remember: the best evaluators of performance are the individuals themselves). Thanking people for their efforts and contributions, without evaluating the efforts or contributions, is appropriate and will also support employee performance.

Concern for "engagement" is not inappropriate, but engagement is impossible to observe or measure. The manager cannot possibly know how much or how hard an employee thinks about a project, or how committed they are to innovating a procedure—only the results are measurable. Yet the term "engagement" has, for some, become a proxy for employee satisfaction. Chasing engagement by trying to make employees happy is a misreading of the correlational data found in many studies on satisfaction (and now engagement) and its relationship to performance.

Buried in the Towers Watson report is that “appealing development opportunities [and] interesting work” are factors in high engagement. What managers really need is for people to “do whatever it takes in the conditions encountered” to get required results. This is most likely to occur when people are assigned clear, significant outcomes, they have autonomy to make decisions that impact their results, they have a chance to grow and develop their skills, and they have success that is captured by documented results.

As for recognition and appreciation, do them—but do them separately. Specifically recognize results, and focus on those results as opposed to recognizing people. Appreciate people by showing genuine interest in their work—e.g., take time to talk specifically about what they are doing, the impact it is having, and how you can support it better. Do these things well and results (engagement, too) will likely follow.

1Turbocharging Employee Engagement: The Power of Recognition from Managers. Towers Watson white paper, 2012, http://www.towerswatson.com/assets/pdf/629/Manager-Recognition_Part1_WP_12-24-09.pdf

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