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When Recognition Backfires: Are Leaders and Teams Seeing the Same Thing?


It happens all the time: two people look at the same image but see something different. In a business setting, that phenomenon can pave the way for more efficient problem solving and creative approaches. Or it can lead to conflict.

As an executive coach, I seek to help the client see issues from multiple perspectives. For many of my clients, it can be a real challenge. While it takes effort to see both sides of the proverbial coin, it is a skill that can be learned and improved. One area where this skill can be particularly valuable is when leaders need to recognize or show appreciation for some of their team members.

Think about this situation and how you might handle it.

Leaders at a non-profit organization asked a group of volunteers to help with a two-day painting project at their building. Some volunteers signed up to work one day, and others signed up for both days. After the project was complete, the operations manager promptly sent an email expressing appreciation for the volunteers’ hard work. She made special reference to those who donated two days of their time, emphasizing (perhaps too emphatically) that they were particularly deserving of thanks.

A one-day volunteer (we will call him Roger) shared with me that the day spent on the project was very rewarding but the email actually made him feel unappreciated. Even though he fully realized it was just an email that could have been worded more elegantly, Roger still said he wouldn’t be donating his time for that organization again in the future because of the incident.

It’s a classic case of opposing perspectives.

The organization leader believed the volunteers donated their time to feel the satisfaction of helping a worthy organization and providing a needed service—not for the “thank you” itself. Nevertheless, she took the extra step to send out a note of appreciation in a timely fashion. She recognized everyone by name. In her efforts to be efficient, she thanked the whole team and then highlighted those who contributed twice as much of their time to help. That seemed reasonable.

From Roger’s viewpoint, the good intentions didn’t translate into feeling satisfaction or appreciation. He would have preferred a public note thanking all of the volunteers for their service, while those who went above and beyond might have received additional private notes of thanks. As it ended up, Roger came away with a less-than-positive experience and, even worse, no incentive to help this organization again in the future. They both lose.

If I put on my Sales Manager hat to analyze that logic, the organization leader did the right things. Companies normally provide a different level of reward or commission to those who make 200% of quota rather than 100%. If you produce twice the results, you deserve more of the credit. Most people wouldn’t argue with that. And if they did, the Manager would probably say something like this: “Get over it! If you double your production next time, you’ll get a bigger bonus. Until then, don’t expect a trophy just for showing up. It’s all about your results.”

That attitude might be perfectly justified, but it still wasn’t successful in achieving the organization’s ultimate goals: making volunteers feel appreciated and inspiring them to share more of their time and talents with the organization.

The same challenge happens in the corporate world. What’s the right way to express appreciation to team members producing at different levels and provide incentives for all of them to continue helping the company push toward the next level of success?

To keep recognition from backfiring, remember that expressing your appreciation may be viewed differently by diverse team members. It’s entirely possible for them to look at the same thing and see something different.

If you are writing or speaking to say thanks, do so carefully. What will be the impact on those who contributed the most? What about those who made smaller contributions but have the potential to be top producers on the next project? Choose words that make everyone feel valued. Be inclusive, not exclusive. Do it promptly and proportionately, considering the effects of public vs. private announcements.

Showing appreciation is important for motivating teams, but paying attention to how we recognize others will determine how they perceive the experience and whether we have them fully on board to help us meet our long-term goals.

How have you recognized team members in an inclusive way that generated positive results? I would love to hear your examples.

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Photo credit: Mark Dow

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