Feeling recognised is about employees feeling that the company really values their work and presence at the company. That the company has a long term vision for their relationship and is actively invested in growing them.
Company recognition versus team recognition
I’m not used to seeing recognition as a core concept at companies. In some companies I actually have the feeling that the company believes that employees are privileged to work there and that’s enough. And well, sometimes that may actually be true. But I also believe that companies that take this extra step in showing that they care will be better at retaining talent.
What I’m talking about in this article is not related with team recognition. That’s about feeling that we are welcome on our team, that our teammates value our contributions and our opinions and generally like to work with us.
But how is the work we do seen upstream? What is the leadership’s expectations and are we meeting them? Sometimes these expectations are not clear and properly communicated. And we might assume that we’re doing good work, but that’s not aligned with the global vision of the company. And this will manifest itself in actions from the company that will make employees feel like they aren’t recognised.
We should track recognition
In my 1on1s I always track how much the employee is recognised by the company. Specifically: how much does the employee feel that the company recognises contributions. This is always an interesting talk and I can better understand what would be needed for the employee to feel valued.
On the other hand, there’s also room to talk about what can we change in our work to be more aligned with the company goals.
But for this talk to work there needs to be trust. The employees need to feel that they can be open and honest. This usually means pointing fingers at the company or some processes and the employee must know that there will be no repercussions.
Starting to talk about this in advance and tracking this allows me to try to predict churn and act quickly whenever there’s a problem.
How to fight low recognition?
Or what can we do to prevent low recognition?
We need clear objectives
We need to have a clear understanding of the impact each employee has on the business of the company. If the company can define clear objectives (OKRs) that can be deconstructed on smaller objectives all the way down to each employee, the employee will know how the work he is doing affects the business of the company.
Employees will have a better picture of how the quality of their work affects outcomes. And will be easier for the company to understand the value that the employees bring to the table.
We need a long term plan for the employee’s growth
The company needs to invest in training and making sure employees have the toolbelt to address challenges. This investment will make employees grow and is a great show that the company cares.
Sometimes the right move for an employee will be to have other types of challenges or harder challenges. This is also very important in growing the employee.
There can be times that the company wants the employee to go on a path that the employee doesn’t like. Typically we see this in seasoned developers that have a spot at managing. And this may be a source of recognition problems, because we’ll have different expectations that will clash.
Realise that your employees are more important than your customers
“Take care of your people as your first priority and the numbers will grow. Focus on growing the numbers as your first priority and the people will fall to the wayside.” - Simon Sinek
If employees feel recognised, and have the tools and resources to work, they will be the first ones fighting for customers. But it’s actually very hard to make this happen. Usually companies are customer-centered, and the employees are a way to please customers.
Shifting to a employee-centered company means that the company only takes care of their people and trusts that the employees will take care of the customers.
Imagine that you need to ask a team to work overtime to meet some client’s expectations. Will you say no and protect the team? Or will you ask the team for the extra effort?
Ironically, from my experience, when we have a healthy team that is committed to the company and understands how their work impacts outcomes, it will be the team that will step up and take care of the customer.
But if we need to ask… that’s already a smell.
Invest on good mentors
Working with good mentors will be great for an employee to feel recognised. It shows that the company believes the employee to be an asset to work with the mentor, and will allow the employee to grow.
Mentors should lead by example. Sometimes companies set values and communicate them to all the employees. But the best way to have good values that are rooted in the company is to have good mentors, that people look up tom showing the way and practicing the values day by day.
Offer responsibilities and ownership
It’s great when our company comes to us and say: You’re doing a great job. We do have a challenge here and would like you to address it. This is the most impactful way to show appreciation. Offering ownership shows that the company trusts the employee.
This should be given with a safety net. Having closer mentorship will help in preventing a bad outcome to the challenge.
Having the company giving challenges that are tailor made for specific employees, fully using their particular skills or by doing something that the employee really likes is something that really adds to the recognition.
Typical recognition pitfalls
Small range of progression levels
Companies may have progression levels per area. For example, Engineer level 1 to 4. This may lead to having lots of people on the first levels and it start’s to be hard to distinguish between them. Some examples:
- If we have a junior developer entering the company, in one year he may also be level 1, event if he did a great job. But other rookies will also start in level 1, and the developer may question why he has the same level when he worked so hard.
- If a junior developer enters the company and sees someone that has more years of experience and is great, but is still at level 2, he may question why should he work hard when will take so much years for the company to grant him level 2.
- We may have a great engineer at level 4 that wants to progress, but now the only path is through management and she prefers to grow on a technical level.
This is not easy to solve and I don’t know a solution. Having more levels could solve some scenarios, but create others.
There are companies that evaluate employees from 1 to 5. But the meaning of the score is not what we would expect. For example we could have:
- 3 - the employee did everything he should and was great at it
- 4 - the employee was fenomenal, she had a huge impact on the company
- 5 - one of a kind
With this scale, the majority of good performers will be given a 3. However. if this scale is not properly communicated and explained, most employees will use a more common scale in their mind:
- 3 - average
- 4 - good
- 5 - great
And will self evaluate as a 4. And this will clash and the employee may feel that the company values him less than he thinks. This is a huge cause of recognition problems.
Even worse is when calibrations kick in and we have quotas and need to only give a couple of fours. This will be super damaging in terms of relation between the company and the employee.
Mixing goals and personal growth
Usually companies have performance evaluations that impact on a bonus the employee may receive or promotions. I believe this will always bring troubles because we’re mixing two different things:
- How much is the employee growing, how high are her skills, how can we focus on self improvement
- How much value the employee is bringing to the company
Consider the following scenarios:
- Employee isn’t that technical but gets work done. It may require more help and the work may be reviewed more often, but is highly productive and delivers on time.
- Employee is super technical, understands all the architecture, is a must when there’s a production incident, but overall isn’t that productive on day to day tasks and is hard to motivate.
- Employee isn’t the best technically and isn’t that much organised. But helps a lot his team. He’s always there and boosts the team’s output, even though his individual output is not stellar in quantity or quality.
In all these scenarios we have improvement points and they all maybe should get a 3. There’s a clear path for training that we can adapt to each one. But maybe the OKRs they delivered are different, and we may have people that are bringing much more value to the company. If we can split this, it will be more fair and employees that bring a lot to the table won’t feel that their work isn’t recognised.
Mixing work areas
Another common issue is when we have companies that are more technical or more visual or product oriented. The same developer will get a different grade based on how aligned he is with the company’s culture. Imagine a company that is very hardcore, low level backend. How will a great frontend developer make a difference? It will be very easy for frontenders/designers to feel less recognised.
They same would happen on a product company for backenders for example.
We may have employees that believe that the company should go in a different direction. This can be the cause of huge level of frustration. The employee will not feel heard and the company will not value his contributions as much.
In these scenarios we need to find a middle ground. And if that’s not possible we need to part ways. It’s very important to have employees that are aligned with the company direction. If they are not, even if they are top performers, we need to do something about it.
Ask for engagement, but disregard recognition
Companies like their employees to be engaged. It means they are motivated and work harder and better. We may have people that have the job of making sure that employees are engaged and build a healthy culture.
But asking for engagement without first going for recognition may hint that the company is more interested in the outcomes than in the employees. If we want employees to feel like the company is theirs, the company also needs to show that the company cares.
It takes two to tango.
The employee wants to change to another department
But he is so much productive and valuable at what he is doing that it’s not a good move for the company to allow him to move. Imagine a great engineer that wants to be a product manager. This is a hard call. We may have grown the employee with training and challenges, and now that she is awesome at what she does, she wants to do something else and we need to start over.
The thing is, if we don’t help the employee go on her chosen path, the employee will leave anyway and for another company.
And another great dilemma for line managers when doing 1on1s: what if you see that the best for your mentee is to leave the company and grow elsewhere? But if you do that you loose a valuable member of the team? This really puts a manager’s convictions and beliefs in the spotlight.
Congratulate one group and hurt another
The company gives a public appraisal to a team that worked long hours, bypassed quality processes but was able to deliver before the deadline. If the company has other teams that focus on working smarter rather than harder, that really advocates for good practices and tries to see far ahead and know that sometimes fast to market means maintenance problems…
Public appraisals are very tricky. It’s very easy to congratulate something and make other people feel not recognised because they were forgotten or because they work in different ways.
There’s the saying:
Praise in Public, Correct in Private
But praising in public may actually be super difficult.
Showing that the company recognises it’s employees is not easy. We may show recognition for some, but then without wanting, make others feel unappreciated. It takes constant iterations and lots of failures. It’s important to focus on a consistent culture and hire people that fit and are aligned. That will help a lot. But there will always be recognition problems that will add the frustration debt and a good way to try to deal with them before it’s too late is to track and recognise patterns on that data.
Here’s the full list of indexes that I like to track on my 1on1s:
And you can also see how I bundle all this on my 1on1’s framework.
Author Pedro Pereira Santos
License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0