Three lessons learned in creating recognition programs that HURT employee engagement

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Recognition programs are a powerful way to reinforce the behaviors that are important to an organization. I have seen first-hand how recognizing someone can have a tremendously positive impact on engaging employees; on the flip side, I have seen recognition result in disengaged employees as well.

At Next Jump, we run a monthly peer-to-peer recognition program called “Top 10”. Every Next Jumper is able to vote for their coworkers, and – at the end of the month – we reward the ten employees who received the most votes. But instead of voting for those who performed the best in a given month (e.g., who built the best product or made the most sales), every Next Jumper votes for the coworkers who helped them succeed that month. When we announce the winners of “Top 10”, we recognize them publicly (at a company-wide staff meeting) and read some highlights from testimonials submitted by the employees who voted for them. Many of the winners are not the star players or top performers, and you can often hear cheers in the audience of people happy for their coworkers who are being recognized for doing the little things to help others succeed. Yet, I vividly remember when our recognition programs had the opposite effect.

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For many years, our highest recognition honor was given to those employees who set a new standard. We called it the “President’s Award”, and it became the highest form of recognition at Next Jump. Typically, it was given to an individual who had brought in the most revenue, or had developed a successful new product. Five years ago, we had an employee (John) who led a team of Next Jumpers to win a company-wide fitness competition by getting everyone to workout two times within the week – an unprecedented mark that we did not think was possible. I proposed to our CEO that we should honor John with the President’s Award.  The next Monday, we recognized John in the front of the entire company with the award – which also came with a $15,000 bonus. I thought it was a creative way to recognize an achievement that wasn’t a sales or product benchmark, and that it would motivate others to set new standards in whatever initiative(s) they took on.

After the staff meeting, however, I was walking with a group of employees and overheard two comments that took me by surprise:

“He only got that award because he’s loved by management.”

“If only they knew how heavy handed John is – I hated being on his team.”

The more we dug in, the more I realized that the “President’s Award” had actually resulted in the opposite effect of what we had hoped: while John was personally motivated, the public recognition had actually demotivated many in the company. Soon after that, we took a hard look at our awards and started a process that resulted in a major overhaul of our entire recognition system.

Here are three lessons and mistakes that I learned hurt our recognition programs at Next Jump:

1. Top Down vs. Crowd-sourced
Even if the same person is given the same award multiple times, we have found that when awards are based on peer recognition or have a more company-wide buy in, it leads to enhancing the culture. Without it, as in the example above, it can serve to truly piss off many others. We do give some awards that are ultimately decided by senior management (for example, our Avengers Award), but we still run a company-wide nomination process and publish the results of the top nominations. We then have a committee of peers who give a recommendation to senior management as to their top choices, and why.

2. Quarterbacks vs. Linebackers
We reward for behavior versus performance. This shifted us from being outcome-focused, where the Quarterbacks (the “star performers”) tended to get compensated via increased salary or bonuses, to honing in on recognizing servant leadership. There are many unsung heroes throughout any company that are typically not recognized. We ask the question: “Who helped you succeed?” in our Top 10 employee of the month program so that our employees have an opportunity to shine a spotlight on those who have selflessly helped others.

3. Intensity vs. Consistency
We have found that “intense” events and recognition can be powerful, but short-lived in terms of behavioral change. Our Avengers Award, for instance, is given once a year, and the ceremony to announce the winner is a powerful way to recognize the top Servant Leader in the company. Yet, we have seem more behavioral change via our Top 10 program; a consistent routine which helps to reinforce that servant leadership is recognized routinely and expected of all Next Jumpers.

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