Recognize This?

As you know, this whole issue is about ‘recognition’! You will find many useful articles and advertisements about trips, compensation plans, awards, and other successful programs used by some of the leading corporations in America – and clothes – especially about the clothes. I’ve got to tell you – I love all of it!

There is nothing like a new golf shirt, especially if it is one of those good ones with the reinforced edging. Almost everything in my wardrobe has a corporate logo on it. What do you need – I’ve got it all. Vests, sweatshirts, jogging suits, cowboy shirts, sweaters, weather protectors. They come in denim, corporate colors, flashy colors, and boring beige (because “it goes with everything”). I’ve got them from law firms, insurance companies, health corporations, associations, and innumerable pharmaceutical and technology product launches. I had to get to get a new suit for my daughter’s wedding because she didn’t want a billboard walking her down the aisle.

But without question it’s the trips that I enjoy above everything else. Now in the interest of full disclosure, I admit I’ve never actually “won” one of these trips by selling 280% of my quota or anything like that – I stand in awe at these incredible performances. But I do have the honor of speaking at a lot of these events – and I vote two thumbs up for the incentive trip!What could possibly be better than having a pina colada on a sunny beach with someone else paying for it? This is assuming that the trip included one’s spouse, partner or friend, of course. Don’t ever, ever, ever, award someone a trip unless they can share it with someone who supported them in winning it.

But enough of my preferences. My job is to write something insightful about “recognition.” I’m a psychologist, I can do this. Human motivation is my specialty. Let’s start with Maslow. The last Introductory Psychology text I saw where he was mentioned, had a triangle diagram with something like “Food and warmth” on the bottom and “Self-Actualization” at the top. There were some other levels between those two, but I forget what they were. That “Food and warmth” level sounds like a reference to Cancun to me! But this self-actualization – becoming your actual self – that sounds like something worth doing too. And it just might be tied into recognition!

When we say we want to ‘recognize’ someone, what are we actually saying? Sometimes we use phrases like, “Reward and Recognition” just to expand the definition a little. Strange language when you think about it.The word “cognition” is the mental process of knowing or that which comes to be known. Re- cognition, then is to know something or someone again, to know them more. Perhaps even to know their actual self!

Recognition, in the context we are discussing it, is about giving evidence that you know someone, because we all want to be known. Just like at Cheers where everyone knows your name. At least that’s the theory. Think back to the last recognition event you witnessed or participated in – the awards banquet, the retirement tea, the dinner for two, the trip, whatever. When Norma, Sam or Jean was “recognized,” what knowing was expressed? What more did you know about these people’s actual Self at the end of the event?You might have learned that they brought in the Simpson account meaning $250,000 worth of revenue. Maybe you learned that they’ve been working here for 37 years and that now they are going to spend time expanding their rose garden. Or was it that they had an idea that reduced the manufacturing cycle from seven steps to four, saving substantial costs for the company?

Most of the time what is recognized is the generation of revenue, be it through income or cost reduction. You hear about the sales team winning a trip to the Boulders Resort in Arizona – when is the last time you heard about the Finance or Human Resource Departments getting to go? What – they don’t work as hard? They have nothing to do with the success of the company? Their function is totally unrelated to sales and marketing? There are good people working in the company basement that haven’t seen the light of day, never mind seen Arizona.

There are insightful companies who see the value of a broader philosophy of recognition. One of my clients, The Royal Bank of Canada, for example, has an annual “Royal Performers Cruise” and on that ship you will meet ‘winners’ from every department imaginable. And that leads me to… Here is another fundamental problem with most “recognition programs.” If the majority of your recognition effort is related to money and financial benefit to the company – and that usually means tied exclusively to profit centers – you run the risk of actually creating more unknowing than knowing. In your effort to value some, you have de-cognition or de-valuing of others. And there you have the breeding ground for dis-unity and the breakdown of team work.

One company, in an effort to counter this very thing, decided to “recognize” both the clerical staff and the maintenance/grounds people for their good efforts; groups often ignored in many companies. So on one Friday for the clerical staff they brought in Champaign and strawberries. And for the maintenance guys they brought in beer and pretzels! You don’t even have to capitalize the word ‘beer’! One group saw it as re-cognition and the other saw it as de-cognition. This was not intentional. Someone kindly thought the maintenance guys would prefer beer. I know I would, I don’t like Champaign. Of course it was simply a perception thing – but the fact is one group looked like they were in First Class, the other in Economy. The recognition didn’t unify, it actually damaged the connection between these two vital groups and the rest of the organization – taking us to…

Few things are more aggravating than trying to administer a thoughtful and well intentioned recognition program when all you get is criticism from those you are trying to recognize. Why is that? First, let’s just recognize that some people have dedicated their life to misery. They win the President’s Club trip to Fiji and complain about the movies on the plane. Not much short of a lobotomy will help some of these ingrates. But for most people, might there be something missing in our well-intentioned effort to re-know them? I think so, and here is my thought on it.

It is one thing to win applause and an envelop for bringing in that huge account and eclipsing your sales quota. And it is another thing for someone to speak of the qualities of your life, the sensitivity, insight and skills you have, your unyielding commitment to goals you genuinely believe in, and the principles on which you have built not only your career, but your very existence. In the first option there is no knowing of the actual self. In the second option there is a great deal of knowing about this person’s person. It is fine to know what they did for thecompany – it is better to know who they are and how they have come to this amazing place of passion, purpose and performance.

People want to be known for something deeper than how much money they brought into the company. If the world’s wealthiest salesman dies, will his widow read over his pay stubs or his love letters? OK, bad example…anyway here is…Most of us got into what we are currently doing motivated by some purpose, perhaps even a sense of calling or destiny. None of us, I don’t think, grew up saying, “I hope someday to win an incentive trip to Hong Kong.” Or “My goal is to accumulate as many crystal figurines and corporate watches as possible!”I think we long for a sense of meaning and purpose. We want to know that we are doing what we are meant to do with our lives. We want to know we are living significantly, and are making this world a better place. If that is true for you as it is for me, then doesn’t it follow that “recognition” should be an affirmation that I am indeed fulfilling my life’s purpose?

Recognition events should be felt as spiritual benchmarks that my life is unfolding its true potential. The ultimate challenge of every recognition initiative is to become a meaningful memory. This is why cash, while valued, is a relatively poor recognition tool. I don’t know anyone who has their bonus checks pasted into the family album so they can show them to their grandkids. But oh that trip to Bermuda. You open the album and there the two of you are, slow-dancing on the beach in your bare feet, intimately aware that both of you were honored and affirmed by this trip from the company. It could be as simple as a short article about you in the local paper, telling the neighborhood about why you are so special to your family, friends and employer. It could be the menu or match book from that very special restaurant where the company sent your whole family, including all three kids, that brings back a meaningful memory of the first time they ever saw a lobster. Maybe the most important lesson of all is...

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Ian Percy is one of North America's most inspirational speakers.

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