Early in my career, I reported to Harold, a leader who proudly described his MBE approach – “management by exception.” “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.”
Whenever I came back to my desk and had a phone message to call Harold, my heart beat accelerated, and jaw tightened like a vice. His approach made me and others feel criticized, often ignored, unappreciated, and sometimes used. We felt like pieces of equipment or just another set of assets — human resources — wrapped in skin.
Organization consultant John Scherer calls this approach “gap-zap.” When things are going well, nothing is said — leaders leave a gap. When things get off track, or there’s a problem…zap!
This approach often damages personal relationships. Over a beer one evening, Harold 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?”
Last week I wrote about our basic human need to be appreciated and recognized. Numerous managers realize that need and at least try to provide some sort of recognition. But many make one or more of these recognition missteps:
Who’s a Good Boy/Girl!
Many recognition approaches are built on the premise. “Be a really good little employee, and we’ll give you lots of ‘atta boys’ and treats.” It’s a classic master-pet manipulation. This is not how we build highly engaged teams who feel emotional connections and partnership with each other and their leaders.
One Prize Fits All
A friend with a past drinking problem is a devoted member of Alcoholics Anonymous and celebrated over 10 years of sobriety. Recently he gave up most of his weekend to deal with a client emergency. The next week his manager “thanked him” with a very expensive bottle of wine.
Sometimes random customer comments or feedback are shared publicly, and praise showered on a service provider. Eyes roll, and credibility slips when the team knows this person is a chronic underperformer and usually an example of what not to do.
And… the Biggest Suck-Up Is…
Employee of the week/month awards given subjectively by managers without being based on results, data, or objective input looks like The Manager’s Pet Award.
People quickly catch on to “I’m doing my recognition thing now.” And they’re quickly turned off by what comes across as “according to company policy, you’re due for a compliment.” This is about as trust-building as that “dear friend” email offering to smuggle millions into your bank account because you’re so honest.
Tinsel and Trinkets
Recognition can’t make up for paying people peanuts (which, as the wag said, only works with monkeys). Formalized recognition programs can reveal those managers who see employees not as partners to be listened to and involved in running the organization but as chattels to be exploited and manipulated. Recognition, such as attendance award programs, can be hazardous.
Many recognition efforts focus on the front-line servers who have the heaviest customer contact. Employees who “serve the servers” as vital links in the service/quality chain are overlooked. Too often, they’re seething and quietly quitting as the people they’re supporting get all the accolades.
Making Your BUT Look Big
A “recognition sandwich” delivers corrective or “constructive criticism” between two slices of — often hollow — praise. Those “you’re doing great work” messages ring hollow and are overlooked when the Big BUT of criticism is delivered. Positive comments slide off like Teflon, and negative or corrective feedback stick like Velcro.
Surveys show many managers rate their coaching skills much higher than the people they’re coaching do. Sincere, specific, and tailored recognition is a core coaching skill that’s badly underdeveloped and rare.
Management Manipulation by Showing Them the Money
Decades of research and dozens of studies show again and again that while money can be a de-motivator, it is rarely a good motivator. Unless people feel under-compensated, money shows up further down the list of motivational factors. Competitive pay gets people to show up for work. But financial incentives don’t get many to excel. More important — especially these days — is purposeful, challenging, or meaningful work, recognition and appreciation, a sense of accomplishment, growth opportunities, and the like.
Managers consistently — and incorrectly — list money as the number one factor that they think motivates people. So, they keep fiddling with pay, bonuses, and financial incentives in a manipulative attempt to find the elusive combination that will motivate people to higher performance. It’s lazy leadership and cynical coercion. Stop bribing and start leading.
As Michael Beer, Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus, researcher, and author of papers and books on organization change puts it, “managers tend to use compensation as a crutch. After all, it is far easier to design an incentive system that will do management’s work than it is to articulate a direction persuasively, develop agreement about goals and problems, and confront difficulties when they arise.”
Bribing people to perform turns them into mercenaries. It demeans the work. It sets a self-perpetuating cycle into motion — incentives, inducements, and enticements leave people feeling manipulated and overly focused on what they get for complying with management’s goals and direction (tuned only to WIFM – “what’s in it for me”).
One of the most neglected forms of compensation is “thanks.” Recognition, celebration, and appreciation are powerful and renewable energy sources. It starts with valuing people. The next step is how you express that appreciation. Thread thoughtfully and carefully.