Don’t Skimp on Employee Recognition…But Be Careful That It Doesn’t Backfire


I often get letters from people who read this column. Recently, a reader shared that the organization they are part of had given out awards to some people who did not seem to achieve the success they were recognized for. This is a valid concern. How can a manager be recognized as a great manager when their employee engagement is low? How can an employee be recognized as an excellent employee if they are not a good coworker?

To be clear, it is great that people are recognized. Anyone who has ever read one of my books or articles or attended my talks understands how important I believe recognition is. Yet I also know that even with the best intentions, there can be some missteps. Here is a story to illustrate:

I was part of an administrative team. We got pumped about starting an employee of the month program. Our enthusiasm got the best of us. Just as we were discussing the program, a letter arrived from a person who had received care from our organization. It described what great care one of the staff members had provided. The patient gave details of the many actions this person had taken that motived them to write such a beautiful thank-you letter. They also asked us to make sure we recognized the person.

All of this sounded great, and the timing seemed perfect. We on the senior team said, “Let’s name this person the employee of the month!” We shared this plan with the manager of the department who seemed agreeable—or so we thought at the time. So we quickly got a nice thank-you package together, and the senior team went to this person’s work area and surprised her by naming her our first employee of the month recipient. She seemed surprised but expressed gratitude for the recognition. Looking back, we did notice that the coworkers were subtle with their applause.

The next week I had my one-on-one meeting with the manager of that area. I asked him how he felt it went. Let me interject here that most of the senior team was new. We were just getting to know each other, and I could sense there was something not being said. I shared that I felt the staff was less excited than I expected; however, I had written it off and moved on. The manager then shared, “That was because she is not a great coworker. She is great with patients, but not a good team player.” I asked why he did not tell us. He said that we were so excited that he did not know how to say something.

The manager also said he realized he should have dealt with the person’s attitude with coworkers. He added that he had thought that since she is great with patients, she could get away with not being a good team player. Unfortunately, the employee of the month recognition made the coworker behavior issue even more urgent and made it harder to address with the recipient. (It can be confusing to give someone an award and then have a hard conversation with them about their behavior.)

Had we ever goofed up! Taking a page from Jim Collins’s book Good to Great, we did an autopsy. He writes about an autopsy without blame; however, we did an autopsy with blame…and the blame was on us, the senior team. We had moved too fast. We did not have clarity on what constitutes an employee of the month. We had put the manager in a tough spot. We should have made it safer for him to push back. None of this meant the employee should not have been recognized in some manner, but that the recognition should have been specifically for the care of this patient. It should not have been an across-the-board award for excellence.

From then on, we did much better.  For example:

  1. We read up on best practices around recognition.
  2. We created many ways to recognize people, from on-the-spot recognition for specific actions to recognition for long-term excellent performance.
  3. We certainly made sure the leaders were the ones nominating people. We also recognized others for items and ended up with employees of the month in many areas. We were not stingy with awards if they were earned.
  4. Once a recipient was chosen, we invited the family to be present while we surprised that person with the award. This was a huge win.
  5. We made sure the coworkers were aware so they could plan something after the announcement.
  6. We invested in leader development on ways to recognize staff. For example, we taught them to be specific as to why the person was being recognized. For instance, “Thank you for demonstrating the value of teamwork when you offered to stay longer yesterday, seeing that the department was so busy. You showed proactive action and commitment to your coworkers yesterday. Thank you.”

The lesson here is that no person, department, or organization is perfect. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide recognition at all; it does mean we should be thoughtful and strategic on how we recognize them. In creating a culture of appreciation, there will be some missteps. However, it’s better to make a misstep than to not step up recognition. It always pays off in the long run to err on the side of more appreciation and gratitude—not less.

Quint Studer
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Quint Studer’s Wall Street Journal bestseller, The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive, is filled with tips, tactics, and need-to-know insights. It functions as a desk reference, pocket guide, and training manual for anyone in a leadership position. His newest book, The Calling: Why Healthcare Is So Special, is aimed at helping healthcare professionals keep their sense of passion and purpose high.

Quint is the co-founder of Healthcare Plus Solutions Group, a consulting firm that specializes in delivering customized solutions to diagnose and treat healthcare organizations’ most urgent pain points. He also serves as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida, Executive-in-Residence at George Washington University, and Lecturer at Cornell University.