Recognition Programs Often Send Negative Messages That Turn People OffWhether training your dog, rats in a lab, or a killer whale at Sea World, treats, praise, and pats on the head are very effective. It’s a classic master-pet manipulation.

Way too many recognition programs are built on this same paternalistic premise. “Be a really good little employee and we’ll give you lots of ‘atta boys’ and treats.” This is not how we build highly engaged teams who feel emotional connections and partnership with each other and their leaders.

Another in a long line of studies on this key leadership and culture issue was just published on Harvard Business Review’s Working Knowledge website. In How to Demotivate Your Best Employees professor Ian Larkin reports on how an attendance program decreased overall productivity by 1.4 percent! A big part of this decrease was from “stellar employees who previously had excellent attendance and were highly productive ended up suffering a 6 to 8 percent productivity decrease.”

How to effectively use rewards and recognition is an issue that cuts to core leadership values and assumptions. The big differences with reward and recognition approaches have to do with how they’re used. Making them manipulative will swing attention away from the meaningful issues of principles and purpose, and move to self-interest and selfishness. You can read more about that and a personal experience I had with team members pushing back and teaching me how to treat them as partners at Reward and Recognition Reinforce Paternalism or Partnerships.

As I outlined in Weak Leaders Try to Use Money as a Motivator, traditional management approaches use rewards and recognition to manipulate, control, and direct behavior. Managers are looking to push motivational buttons with paternalistic pats on the head. Their underlying assumptions are that most employees like to slack off and take shortcuts and need to be “motivated” to perform. Strong and effective leaders with highly engaged teams use rewards and recognition to follow up or reinforce high performance. Leaders work with (rather than doing to) team members in adult-to-adult participative and respectful partnerships. Leaders recognize that performance problems are often rooted on team dynamics, leadership behaviors, and organizational issues like structure, processes, and systems.

I’ve written book chapters, articles, and blogs on this critical leadership issue. You can peruse my articles at Recognition, Celebration, and Appreciation. My past blogs on this topic include a recent one on the Positivity Ratio for peak performance and Thoughts That Make You Go Hmmm on … Recognition, Appreciation, and Celebration.