“Just as it is easier for some parents to show love with gifts than with hugs, it is often easier for organizations and managers to show gratitude with money than with words.” — Andrew Lebby, senior partner, The Performance Group

We have found that managers’ approaches to recognition can be divided into three categories:

1. Management by Exception

One manager proudly used this term to describe his approach. “If you haven’t heard from me, that’s a good sign,” he explained. “That means I think you’re doing just fine. I only deal with the exceptions. I look for problems and people that need correcting. Those are what I jump on.” In a later conversation that same manager talked about his failed first marriage. “What really drove me crazy were her constant complaints that I never told her I loved her,” he complained. “I married her didn’t I? Obviously I loved her. Why did I need to keep saying it then?” Personal and organization consultant, John Scherer, calls this approach Gap-Zap. When things are going well, nothing is said — we leave a gap. When things get off track or there’s a problem — we zap.

Variations of management by exception are leading causes of the demoralization and fear that’s rampant in so many groups and organizations. People feel criticized, ignored, unappreciated, and even used. They feel like a piece of equipment or just so many “human assets with skin wrapped around them.”

2. Flattery and Manipulation

Flattery is a negative form of praise that can do more harm than good. It’s used to control and dominate. This sickly (and sickening) form of “recognition” is often practiced by people who “lay it on thick.” Generally the compliments they are paying are overblown and out of proportion to the deed or person they’re addressing (“we could never survive without your contributions”). Or their phony flattery is vague and general (“you do great work”).

Many manipulative managers have built extensive recognition programs and practices around “doing their recognition thing.” They hand out flattery, compliments, awards, prizes, and such as “atta boys” like they would control and reward the family dog with a biscuit and a pat on the head.

One company actually handed out stickers, awards, plaques, and merchandise as part of their “Atta Boy/Girl” program of “recognition.” Another “motivational speaker” makes this approach the centerpiece of his suggested management methods. Using the training approach for teaching killer whales to jump high out of their tanks as his model, he gives out “Good Whale” stickers that are to be stuck on deserving people or their work. That would sure make me feel like a valued adult that’s respected as a partner!

3. Recognition and Appreciation

Only two groups of people thrive on sincere recognition and genuine appreciation — men and women. Reflecting on a life of pioneering work, the 19th century American philosopher and psychologist, William James, said, “I now perceive one immense omission in my psychology — the deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

Sincere recognition and genuine appreciation are highly energizing. Accomplishment and achievement should be our own reward for high performance. But it feels even better when other people notice and appreciate what we’ve done. Recognition and appreciation continually show up near the top of most lists of motivational factors. They are key sources of the fun and excitement, will to win, desire to belong, and passion so vital to continually improving performance.

Highly effective leaders use a multitude of ways to build an atmosphere of success, accomplishment, and pride through recognition and appreciation. But these leaders aren’t central figures in control of the “goodies.” Rather, these leaders model, encourage, and support people giving recognition and appreciation up, down, and across the organization and within and among teams and team members.

Chapter 16 of Firing on all Cylinders outlines a series of programs, techniques, and practices for team, individual, and personal recognition programs. As I reflect on and compare organization and team cultures, it’s clear that the high energy, high performance culture radiate sincere recognition and genuine appreciation. That’s why the same recognition programs that fizzle out in other organizations thrive in these. It’s also clear that managers who have well developed personal recognition skills and appreciation habits lead these vibrant, successful cultures.