in Management

Solving the recognition paradox

No Thank YouEvery year, we send out employee surveys and, every year, we discover employees aren’t as engaged as we’d like.

And yet every year we neglect to do one of the cheapest, easiest, and most effective things we can do to improve employee engagement: appreciate what people do.


More than sex and money

Harvard Business Review routinely publishes articles on employee motivation and engagement. One of the most famous is from Frederick Herzberg who, in 1968, wrote “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” In that article (which for a long time had more reprints purchased than any other from HBR), Herzberg dismissed ham-fisted attempts by managers to motivate employees and urged them instead to focus on job enrichment and “motivator factors”.

“The growth or motivator factors that are intrinsic to the job are: achievement, recognition for achievement, the work itself, responsibility, and growth or advancement. The dissatisfaction-avoidance or hygiene factors that are extrinsic to the job include: company policy and administration, supervision, interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, status, and security.”

Herzberg’s surveys put recognition as the second most important factor in employee satisfaction.

This week, 45 years after Herzberg’s article, HBR published “The Two Most Important Words”. It’s a personal story from former Mattel CEO, Robert Eckert, on the power of saying “thank you” at work. To make his point more memorable, he quotes another CEO, cosmetics entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash:

“There are two things people want more than sex and money: recognition and praise.”

In the decades in between those two articles, there have been countless studies showing that recognition and praise increase engagement, decrease turnover, and lead to to many other very specific business benefits. So why don’t we see more of it?

Praise paralysis

Just this week, in a meeting where people were lamenting all the issues contributing to employee dissatisfaction, someone suggested we should recognize employees more. Another person agreed, saying that even though there wasn’t budget for events and the like, we should try to be creative.

“How about saying thank you?”, I asked. And an awkward silence fell upon the room.

It was as if “recognition” was something that only came packaged in awards programs. As if we have forgotten the simple, powerful, human gestures of sending a hand-written note or publicly recognizing someone’s work (something that’s become easer than ever to do using our social platform).

That meeting wasn’t an aberration. Research “revealed just one in five workers believe a boss at work has ever publicly recognized them. And fewer than half of employees have received even one personal thank-you from their boss.”

Barriers to praise

For many, the potential downsides of rewarding employees – that praise and recognition can be misused, misunderstood, or even bring about negative results – is enough to lead to inaction.

In “Why We Do What We Do”, the psychologist Edward Deci cautions that “rewards can be used as a way to express appreciation, but the more they are used as motivators…the more likely it is that they will have negative effects.”

Too often, managers rely on bonus money or other prizes to reward people. But, as Deci points out, “the results of the studies cast further doubt on the efficacy of these pay-for-performance practices.” Results tend to be short-term and “will likely encourage shortcuts and undermine intrinsic motivation. They will draw people’s attention away from the job itself, towards the rewards it can yield, and that without doubt will result in less effective, less creative problem solving.”

A safe way to start

So what do you do if crude carrots and sticks don’t work? You can get ideas for  comprehensive recognition programs from books like “The Carrot Principle”. They provide useful tools to help you decide on everything from budgets to specific types of rewards for different kinds of achievements.

To start, though, some of the best advice is also the easiest to follow: begin with a genuine, personal “thank you.” Robert Eckert put it well in “The Two Most Important Words”:

“Wherever I show my thanks, these tips work well for me:

  • Set aside time every week to acknowledge people’s good work.
  • Handwrite thank-you notes whenever you can. The personal touch matters in the digital age.
  • Punish in private; praise in public. Make the public praise timely and specific.”

I was thinking about this as I was walking to an appointment yesterday. I noticed a landscaper in Battery Park City pruning back some very tall grasses. It was clearly very physical work and the results were stunning. As I walked by, I thought “I should really say thank you.” Yet, in that moment, I was just like every manager at work. I knew what to do but was too busy with other things to act on it.

This time, though, I turned back, approached the landscaper, and thanked her for making our neighborhood look so wonderful. She looked at me, surprised. Then she wiped her brow and smiled. “Thank you for appreciating it.”

That moment made my day. And for the landscaper, she knew that at least one person valued her hard work and admired her achievement. That moment, multiplied by thousands – by millions – is what the Robert Eckert had in mind when he encouraged readers and their firms to “Foster a culture of gratitude. It’s a game changer for sustainably better performance.”

It is a game changer. And it could all start with a “thank you.”