Walking a Tightrope: Recognizing High Performers Without Discouraging Other Employees

Employee engagement is a relatively new concept and concern in the work world. It used to be that only top performers received raises, accolades, and bonuses. Who were the top performers? They were the most successful salespeople, the workers who produced the most widgets, and the managers whose departments made their productivity goals. However, as our economy continues to transition from industrial to a more creative, services-based one, it’s harder to measure what productivity means. Some of your best employees might not be “stars” on paper. And some who are might be acting contrary to the values and culture of your organization, which are both of the utmost importance. Those who need improvement may lose motivation if they are constantly deprived of praise and encouragement.

As a manager, you need to step carefully when navigating the line between recognizing high performers and encouraging improvement. Here are some ways you can do it:

Don’t Put a Dollar Sign on It—At Least Not Every Time

People often respond to positive feedback in ways that money can’t buy. For actions that impact just a single person (Thanks for covering my shift!) or a small group, a simple “Thank you” should suffice. However, when someone comes up with an idea that saves the company thousands of dollars, some form of monetary reward is appropriate along with the “You’re a Genius!” e-card. A team lunch, a gift card, or new iPad will all be appreciated, but prizes should never take the place of recognition.

Don’t Recognize Everything

In Disney’s The Incredibles, the superhero father does not want to go to his son’s fourth-grade graduation, saying, “They keep finding new ways to reward mediocrity.” He even calls it psychotic. And we all laughed knowingly because we see this happening in our culture all the time. Constant praise for average work will not help an employee grow. Give constructive feedback in a positive way, but reserve true recognition for extra effort.

Recognize In Context and on Time

Catching an employee in the act of greatness and acknowledging it right then is one of the most effective ways to motivate the individual as well as show those around them the behaviors that earn praise. A sincere, timely way-to-go with a nod to how it furthers a larger-scale company initiative matters. It can get others thinking about business goals, how their efforts play into them, and how they can be more effective.

Be Clear About What Gets Recognized

Creating an atmosphere in which anyone feels they can be recognized can be motivating. While it’s a great idea to include concrete incentives in your program (do x; get y), you should also include discretionary recognition for those who don’t “win” the incentive or are not eligible to compete. Best practices for a structured employee recognition program include aligning your award types with your company’s core values and goals and ensuring that everyone is included. When an employee sends her colleague an award she should have to choose what value was displayed and explain how the action illustrated it.

Mix It Up

As important as structure is, randomness is also a good thing. A good mix of the two keeps the workplace alive. If you always recognize employees in the same way, they come to expect it more and appreciate it less. An annual employee appreciation fun day can turn into a just-skip-work-because-we’re-not-working-anyway day. If you always give a certain Christmas bonus, people feel cheated if it’s not as much as last year’s. Random recognition builds morale and keeps things fresh.

At the end of the day, combining a structured program with celebrating random acts of greatness can be just the thing to wow your staff and make them feel valued, work harder, and stay longer.

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