when a recognition program feels too fluffy

A reader writes:

I work in a team of 24 within a large organization and we measure our employee engagement using the Gallup questionnaire. One of the questions our team scored lower on was “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work,” and as a group, we decided this was one area we’d like to focus on to improve.

We know we need to tackle this from several angles — including recognition from the leadership team as well as from our peers. Strongly believing in the power of recognition, along with having previously led a small team of 7 where we saw fabulous results after introducing a peer recognition program, I offered to help put a program together with one of the leadership team.

After research and asking others what had worked for them, our little project team decided on a program based on Tom Rath and Donald Clifton’s book “How Full is your Bucket?” This was also the basis of what I’d introduced in my last role. In a nutshell, we’ll be giving the team information and resources to provide positive feedback — both verbal and written — to their colleagues (and hopefully they’ll see the benefits in a wider context too). We’ve presented it to the leadership team and they are all behind it.

Here’s my problem. Many of my colleagues are very analytical (we work in a part of the business where chunks of our work are very data driven) and they see things like this as being “fluffy.” One of my colleagues overheard me talking on the phone with the other person on the project, speaking excitedly about the cool red tin buckets we’d bought for each person to have on their desk (to collect their positive feedback “drops”). He said, “You’re really going to hack a lot people off, you know.” The idea of personalizing his bucket (even just writing his name on it) leaves him cold. He said “Well, as long as I can go and do something else while you do that.” He wasn’t being intentionally nasty, he just felt it was a waste of time; he’d rather “focus on work than soft and fluffy stuff.”

I know he’s not the only person who may be cynical about it. In the presentation I’ve prepared, I’ve included lots of research facts and supporting data in the hope of meeting their “show me the data” requirements. Some of the team can be pretty brutal with their feedback (and we’ll be gathering feedback on my presentation) [[ so I’d really appreciate any other suggestions you and others reading this may have in order to appeal to the wide variety of personality types in our team and hopefully win them over enough to at least give it a try.

You have either come to the right person or the wrong person, depending on your perspective, because I’m someone who would consider this too fluffy too, and I work in a office that would almost definitely greet this with cringes, so I’m familiar with what it sounds like you might be facing.

That said, I’m a huge proponent of finding ways to increase positive recognition when you’re hearing there’s not enough of it, and I think it’s great that you’re looking for ways to do it. Often when the culture is one where praise-giving isn’t coming naturally, the only way to change that is to figure out ways to formalize recognition a bit, until it becomes a more natural part of culture.

But… I think you have to do it in a way that fits the people you’re working with. The program you’re describing sounds like it would work well in some environments and be greeted with derision in others. If yours is more the latter, I don’t think you’ll have success pushing it on people for whom that kind of thing chafes. Although there’s data showing the program is effective, you’ve got to have a reasonably receptive audience. (I’m guessing at that; maybe the program shows it works even with anti-fluffy types, but I’m skeptical; I think in some cases you could even end up lowering morale with a program that’s at odds with employees’ personalities.)

My hunch is that you’d have better luck asking employees for their own ideas on how to tackle the problem. If no one volunteers ideas (and they might not, especially if they’re not naturally positive-feedback-givers to begin with), then go with the most low-key approach you can find … which probably means no red buckets on people’s desks, if a sizable portion of your team isn’t into it.

I actually tackled this myself in my own workplace a while ago. Just urging managers to give more positive feedback hadn’t worked, so I decided to try formalizing it a bit more than that … but I knew that formalized programs would produce eye rolls. So I tried to go as low-key as I possibly could. I gave each manager a small budget for employee recognition and told them they had a certain number of awards they could give for great work per year. The awards are super-low-key: an all-staff email describing the person’s achievement plus a small gift of something the person would like (an amazon.com gift certificate, a bottle of scotch, whatever the person is into). The results have been fascinating: this aspect of our culture has actually changed. Managers are offering praise more frequently and more publicly, and people are reporting they feel their hard work is more appreciated. (And yet, even as low-key as this is, we still have people who think it’s too cheesy.)

I’m not saying that approach would be right for your office, but I do think you’ve got to find the approach that fits the group of people you’re dealing with. Figure out what they would really appreciate, so that whatever you end up with feels comfortable to them, not contrived.

Obligatory reminder: Of course, the most important thing is to ensure that you’re recognizing people in ways that really matter — with strong evaluations, great raises, good management, and new challenges (if they want them).

Good luck!

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Poppy*

    Thanks for answering my question AAM – I can see I should have asked sooner – before we got so close to the launch date!

    When the team chose to work on the recognition question, our leader suggested getting into teams to work together to come up with ideas. This happened – well, up to the point of forming teams. When our leader asked each team to report back prior to the following team day (we are based in a couple of locations across the country and only get together as a full team once a quarter) there was frantic calling around to see what had been done… nothing! So when it was confessed that there was nothing to report on, she called for a couple of volunteers to work on it. So on the one hand, I don’t have a lot of sympathy if it’s not exactly what the team wants because they had a chance to come up something they really liked and couldn’t be bothered. On the other hand, of course, I want it to appeal to as many as possible and for them to give it a go (I’m realistic enough to know nothing will be everything to everyone).

    But at the heart of it, WE (the whole team) chose this area to improve in – so it was seen as important to the team. My concern is that there are some people who think recognition is something that other people (in particular their managers) give them – that it’s not a two way street.

    And don’t get me wrong – there will be some who will no doubt love it – there’s maybe 25% of the team who I just know will think it’s lame.

    AAM, I will share your suggestions with the leader I’m working with on this and see how we can integrate them into our programme. I really welcome any other comments or suggestions!

  2. HRD*

    I would suggest that the basis of the question might actually be fundamental to the issue of recognition. It needs to be personal. This is where, in my opinion, many recognition schemes fail. So the red tins might do it for some, and thats ok. It might not do it for others, and thats ok too.

    There are three main chunks of recognition, regular informal day to day feedback “great job Fred”. Recognition for above and beyond, “CEO award”. And finally organisational wide recognition, “annual results presentation”. I wonder if you are trying to deal with the first through the second?

    Personally, I would recommend taking a look at “The Carrot Principle” by Gostick and Elton. Its one of those books that really made me think about what I did as a leader as well as what I did as an HRD.

    And I agree completely that the recognition needs to take account of “whatever the person is into”. If Managers really get to know their people, they know whats important to them, leaving work early to pick up the kids one day, tickets to a specific sports team, passes to a sci fi convention. And if one employee prefers low key, keep it low key. If another likes to be heralded, herald away!

  3. Paul Hebert*

    It sounds as if the environment you’re in has been very lacking in recognition. It may just be cynicism that recognition will actually be for the things the audience feels is important versus just paying lip service.

    You mention that you have 24 people in the department and this is feedback from one individual. Don’t make the mistake of designing the program around one vocal outlier. Do some quick informal research and see if in fact the entire team feels similarly.

    As others have point out – recognition is personal and not everyone is into the same things. Many people like the recognition but don’t like the public part of it. Others are just jaded and that may be the case with this one individual.

    If in fact you do have a group who doesn’t like the “promotional” aspect of the program – the buckets” – then scaling that back but still making sure the recognition occurs may be a good way to reduce the negative feelings about the program. Often if the “hype” is greater than the reality of the recognition it is seen as “just and other management program” and you won’t get much support.

    People don’t like to say they “need” recognition – especially in a working environment. You may be hearing negatives because they don’t want to admit in public they need it.

    My recommendation is to continue what you’re doing – maybe make the buckets optional. Once the group sees that the program will continue and the events being recognized are real and substantial I would guess most people will come around.

  4. Evil HR Lady*

    I think the only thing worse than no recognition is fake recognition. You know, the kind the schools give to our children. “Great job!” they say on everything.

    The end result is that everyone thinks, “hey, I’m doing a great job” when in reality there is great room for improvement.

    It’s difficult to implement any recognition program because it pressures managers to give praise even if praise is not deserved.

    A well functioning recognition program in the long term can be very effective, as long as what is praised is truly praise worthy.

    And keep the praise in scope with the success.

  5. Anonymous*

    I’m one of the analytical types, and if you’re putting a red bucket on my desk, it better be full of Swiss chocolates that were shipped over by EHRL! Little slips of paper (or the lack thereof) would leave me cold.

  6. Charles*

    One of the problems with such “forced” recognition is that it comes across not just as “fluffy” but as something that is done with children.

    Remember that you are dealing with adults – treat them as such!

    Reading your comments I can see that you seem frustrated with this issue. But be careful to not let this show to the team members. I say this because two things that you have written really pop out at me:

    First – The way that you used “analytical” in the original post made it sound as if that is a flaw. It’s not, and I am sure that you didn’t mean it to be. But it did come across that way to me as I read that sentence. Make sure that you are not coming across that way to the team.

    Second – in your follow up with AAM you also stated that “they couldn’t be bothered.” Really? They couldn’t be bothered? On top of doing their regular work they were also supposed to be solving management issues? Even though you stated that this is something “as a group, we decided this was one area we�d like to focus on to improve.” Was it really decide that way or did most on the team feel that it was an area for improvement. The two statements are different.

    Another thing that I would like to mention is that you had a good experience with a small team of 7 members. I would not expect to get the same results from a large team of 24. With a smaller group the dynamics are going to be different, more personal. With 24 team members it will be easy for most to “blend into the background” and expect others to pick things up.

    Therefore, my suggestion is already your idea – smaller groups.

    But I would change it to be each smaller group (say of six members)is responsible for recognition for one quarter. The next quarter that responsibility would be another group’s job, and so on.

    Each quarter will be different and that’s okay.

    This will allow you to remove yourself from the frustration of dealing with this issue.

    This will allow anything “fluffy” to be from their own peers; and they have a chance when it is their quarter to do something different, something that they like. Remember, they are adults – they can behave like adults this way.

    Because they know that they will soon be “hosting” most team members will be less critical and less demoralized if it is less than what they would do when the recognition that quarter is something that their peers designed.

    When I was in college I worked for a company that asked employees to come up with ideas for recognition, and yes, most of the ideas stank! Boy, did they ever!

    But one team came up with an idea that everyone liked even though it was a little “childish” – a Dove Bar Party! They would choose someone by peer nomination who would be recognized for doing outstanding work that month; but, unlike most peer nominated recognition which usually turns into a popularity contest this event was enjoyed by all as the Dove Bars were for everyone. They even had a couple of times when they stated that no one person deserved to be singled out but rather the whole group did.

    I think the important thing is that this Dove Bar Party was not management driven, condoned – yes, but not a management “fluffy” idea. So, it was much better received.

    P.S. I agree Anonymous – a little red bucket left on my desk had better be filled with chocolates!

  7. Anonymous*

    Seriously, I’d like the company to buy me a good lunch on company time. Oh, and *don’t* force me to go. Let me take my paid lunch hour at the end of the day if that’s what I want.

  8. class-factotum*

    When I was developing and implementing various training/data cleaning/SAP conversion projects for 72 factories and 200 customer service reps, I had no authority whatsoever to get them to do what I needed them to do. So I used chocolate and praise as my carrots.

    The first ten plants to complete the project correctly by the deadline each got a few pounds of fancy chocolate and everyone in the division, including all the regional and plant managers, was notified that these plants had completed the project. I also explained why this project mattered: how it affected accounts receivable, order status, etc, etc, and how it improved productivity.

    When an individual customer service rep did something above and beyond, I wrote a note to her boss (by hand), sent a photocopy to the CSR, and also sent her a handful of M&Ms and a tiara. (I was the Data Queen and she got to be a Data Princess — silly, I know, but it branded the project and was kind of fun.)

    A year after I had sent a note to one CSR, she told me that the note was pinned to the board above her desk and that it was the only written praise she had ever gotten at this job, which stunned me, because she was one of the top CSRs in the company.

  9. class-factotum*

    Oh. My point.

    You need anything fancy, silly or formal. You just need specific, timely praise. It helps if that praise comes from one’s manager, who should know what one is doing and when one surpasses the expected. It is even better if that praise is public.

    “Wow, Bob. Your idea is going to save us 1% on widgets next year! Way to go! Here are four tickets to the Brewers game this Friday afternoon.” Or, “Sue, you got the Miller account we have been working on for years! Sure, you’re going to get a bonus for that, but I think your husband would like to see you after all the long hours you’ve been putting in. Here’s a three-day gift certificate for the Kohler resort. Take a long weekend on us.”

  10. Productivity Guy*

    Are these red buckets real, as in they will actually sit on people’s desks? I wouldn’t want something taking up space, and it also encourages using paper vs. email (environmentally unfriendly, no?). I like the idea of company wide email (or at least department-wide) commending someone for their work, even if there isn’t a monetary reward. But something cheap should be affordable, especially in a large company such as yours.

  11. Poppy*

    Thank you all for taking time to share your comments and suggestions – I do appreciate the diversity of ideas and perspectives. A few things that I missed from the contents of my initial question (you can probably tell by now that I’m rather verbose � and I hadn�t wanted to submit a novel) that may allay concerns about the current levels of feedback we receive. We have a formal individual performance plan (with SMART objectives linked into business group objectives, linked into strategic objectives) which we review quarterly, along with the annual review. There is a monetary component of our package linked to our performance in our plans. We have monthly 1:1�s with our managers. We gather feedback on what we�ve done well and what we could do more of from our stakeholders and internal customers. Here we evaluate performance not just on what someone achieves, but how they do it � so behaviour and attitude are key to success too. That�s a nice philosophy that resonates with me. Personally, I don�t think we are lacking in formal recognition and I�ve always received plenty of positive informal feedback when I�ve worked with the various managers on things (and I�ll freely admit I LOVE being appreciated so to say my needs are being met in this area is really saying something).

    We�re a State Owned Enterprise (owned by the government, run like a business that is expected to make a significant profit) � so our �shareholders� are all New Zealanders. What we do and how we spend money is in the spotlight. As a result, we�re very mindful about how money is spent and we don�t have budget for weekends away, tickets, etc.

    The idea of the buckets was to encourage peer recognition as an additional form of feedback � not to replace or take away from the importance of all the other good and necessary ways management provide feedback to us. We want to encourage the team to be aware of what others are doing around them and celebrate the great stuff. It can be as easy as verbally giving someone specific feedback when they see them doing something great or helping out or just supporting someone, etc. It can be a written drop (an electronic version is available or they can use a card drop which they can leave in the person�s bucket on their desk). Even smiling and saying hello if they are normally someone who rushes past with their head down! The benefit of the written drops is that people are likely to keep them � they�re great to read when you�re having a tough day! We�re not going to set targets of how many drops they need to give, etc � that would go down like a cold cup of sick � but we thought of challenging them to give it a go for 10 days and see what impact they see on others and feel themselves.

    Charles, you�re right. I am feeling a bit frustrated with this issue and your advice to not let it show is spot on. I do think an analytical mind is an enviable talent � I had no idea of the power of data before joining this team and seeing the results of our work on the business. My colleague I referred to in my initial post has the most amazing ability and he worked with me on a project I recently led which wouldn�t have been nearly as successful without his significant contribution � and not only did I tell him that, I made sure everyone involved knew where credit was deserved. It�s just that I think it�s important to value the variety of strengths in a team � including the �soft� skills. We also wouldn�t be successful in our projects if we didn�t have the skills to influence and gain buy-in from stakeholders and help impacted teams through times of significant change.

    I see how �they couldn�t be bothered� sounded harsh. Due to changes in the economic environment and how this is impacting our business, for a few months project priorities were being reviewed and some projects were put on hold. The workload of our team reduced significantly as a result and it was seen as a good opportunity to work on some projects within our team. This was one of them. So people had capacity. They didn�t follow through.

    Anyway � while I feel like I�m trying to give you the whole picture, now I�m sounding like I�m trying to justify myself and my position � which isn�t attractive! I really am keen and open to hearing more comments and suggestions!

    I love the idea of sharing the responsibility by asking groups to take charge of recognition for a quarter!

    PS: Yes the buckets are real (they are little � about the size of a small noodle box) � and as a teaser we gave them out at Easter with chocolate eggs in them and a note to hold onto their bucket.

  12. Susan*

    I’m one of those analytical types. I’ve even worked for the employer who used the red bucket, and I hated it. Every meeting seemed like a popularity contest where those who bragged the most about “ALL” they did at work received “drops in their buckets” (the little slips of paper), while those of us who toiled away all day long without enough time to whine, moan, and brag to the boss about “ALL” we do usually ended up sitting there watching feeling like we were back in kindergarten. Now, I work for a boss who chooses to personally come up to me and tell me that he is impressed with my work in a conversational way. To me, it shows that he remembers who I am even when nobody else is watching or keeping points or counting the drops in their buckets. It also tells me that I must be doing a good job since I attracted his attention enough to take a few minutes out of his busy day and tell me how well I’m doing. My point is that for some of us, the personal praise is worth so much more than the bells, whistles, and hype of some of these gimmick programs. Some people like things like the bucket approach. You need to get to know your employees in order to know who will be receptive to which methods. Maybe you don’t know your employees well enough.

  13. Anonymous*

    maybe the teams didn’t follow through because they wanted a tangible reward and knew it wasn’t possible.

    I have to say now that I’ve heard it described in depth I find the ideas makes me uncomfortable than when I first read it.

    So these are government workers, expected to make a profit, but who can’t get rewards like a pizza day, movie tickets, etc.? Surely there is some money for candy or other small rewards that the public won’t mind?

    Furthermore, it sounds like instead of getting nice perks they are going to be expected to “reward each other” with “good job” notes that they are both expected to give to each other and also to keep.

    How long before your company institutes a quota of the number of “drops” you have to send to someone.

    This seems almost guaranteed to generate the insincere pithy praise phrase that you get in yearbook signatures. “it is nice working with you,” “good job X,” or “keep up the good work”

    I bet your coworkers wants something tangible and not some insincere platitude that’s been handed them by a cheerleader.

    I’d rather have a reward system of “you think I did a good job you give me a small piece of candy in my bucket” rather than this. I will enjoy the candy, the “pithy praise phrase” gets forgotten as the insincere platitude that it is.


  14. Poppy*

    I think a few people are missing the point – this is a PEER recognition programme – it’s not replacing what managers do. When was the last time you said to a colleague, “Steve, I admired the way you faciliated the training session today. You really knew the material and your confidence and enthusiasm had us hanging off every word. Here, I’d like to give you some movie tickets!!”

    Hopefully you are saying things along the lines of the first part though – which is what we’re encouraging more of. We just want to remind people that recognition comes in many forms – and from a range of people, as well as your manager.

    We are encouraging people to individualise their recognition – some would rather a quiet word of thanks or recognition, others might relish a written note.

    And no, there will never be a quota. And we won’t be reading them out at meetings.

  15. class-factotum*

    it’s a PEER recognition programmeOh! So it’s like “Snaps!” from “Legally Blonde!” :)

  16. Anonymous*

    I understood it was a PEER recognition program, which is why I ask how long it would be until your company made it mandatory that people give a certain number of “drops” per week to each other (especially if large numbers of individuals decline to participate).

    Its a bad idea it tells everyone – “instead of tangible rewards you get to say ‘good job’ to each other.” It really sounds like those awful teamwork exercise HR is always thinking up. You know, the kind where they force you to overshare and where you grudgingly participate because if you don’t you’ll be accused of not being a team player so you try to get away with the minimum amount of participation possible.

    The litmus test should be – does this treat the employees like children. If it does, the answer should be “don’t do it” (unless of course you already have a company culture which supports this, but sounds like you don’t).


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