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Why Does Our Recognition Program Just Feel So Bad?

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Dear Gemba Coach

My company has put an employee of the month program and other related efforts to reward good behavior. So why does it feel so bad?

First of all, sorry to hear the recognition program doesn’t feel good. I don’t know what the specifics of your case are, but this is not uncommon. I remember visiting a company that the CEO claimed to be completely value-driven. They talked about servant leadership and all that jazz, their company values were stenciled on the walls. And yet the atmosphere felt awful. No one would look you in the eye, everywhere you looked were grim faces, and when you talked to people, they would gripe about every problem as someone else’s fault.

I probably caught them on a bad day, but, indeed, human motivation and satisfaction at work is a topic where, as Chris Argyris pointed out long ago, the gap between espoused theory (what people say they believe in) and theory in use (what people actually do) can be large and consequential. The best intentions from management can easily have the opposite social effects. Unintended consequences are often a huge factor in this equation, which is why the first part of respecting people as human beings is to accept that to a large degree human beings are complex, often contradictory. Anything that you try to encourage people to subscribe will be affected by this dynamic.

Recognize The Problems with Recognition

Let’s return to lean basics. The starting point with recognition programs, as always, is: what problem are you trying to solve? Any manager worth his salt has a hunch that businesses or organizations are only as strong as the morale of those who work within them. Morale has to do with people’s ability to stick to their goals or with those of their organization, particularly in the face of opposition or hardship. Morale enables employees to give their best to the task at hand and has to do with such intangibles as enthusiasm, confidence or loyalty. Morale is not the same as motivation. Motivation is an individual drive to behave in a certain way, whereas morale has a collective dimension, such as esprit de corps. In this sense, employee-recognition programs are on the shortlist of classic morale-boosting measures. They’re meant to kill two birds with one stone by motivating employees through visible recognition – giving them something to strive for – as well as increasing the sense of belonging and fellowship within the company.

That’s the theory anyway. Unfortunately, like many measures directed at affecting people’s state of mind, it can easily turn into management wishful thinking. The lean take on such programs would be to start from the operator’s perspective: how does a worker look at any such effort? What would be our test method? Think of yourself faced with any proposed reward system. To buy into it you need to figure out:

  1. Eligibility: Am I up for it? You need to believe you are eligible for this reward, that it indeed concerns you.
  2. Confidence: Am I up to it? You also need to feel confident that what you’re asked to do is the right thing to do and that you’re confident you can do it.
  3. Trust: Am I likely to be rewarded? If you do perform, you need to be confident that there will be a reward and that you are likely to get it.
  4. Satisfaction: Should I care??Finally, you need to be convinced that the reward will actually make a difference to you, that you will be satisfied by it enough to care.

As you can see, it’s very easy to construe the program in radically different ways:

Buy in

Opt out


It’s easy to participate – I see what they’re looking for and I clearly fit the bill

This stuff ain’t for me, it’s reserved for the managers’ pets.


That’s what I need to do. Good idea. Sure I can.

Why would I want to do that in the first place? I could never do that.


Even if I don’t get the reward this time, I will next. Joe was rewarded, and for good reason – now I know what to do better.

Even if I did what they wanted, I would never get the reward – I know what they’re like.


Look at that, it’s really nice. Cool!

Look at that, it’s pitiful. Who do they take me for?

Compounding the difficulty, a recognition program is typically more a pat on the back than a hard cash reward . For it to work, the person giving the pat on the back must be respected by the employee. All in all, recognition programs aim to engage staff in certain behaviors, by recognizing their efforts publicly and by reinforcing the feeling of being part of a team. The risk is that they disengage people by coming across as a management raindance to reward brownnosers for playing the game well in pretending to do whatever absurd management thing top dogs have demanded as a sign of loyalty.

Many Losers

There’s no secret trick for addressing morale. Lean thinking explicitly considers that employee satisfaction is the key to customer satisfaction. The lean approach to employee satisfaction is to provide employees fulfilling work, secure working conditions and fair treatment. A large part of this comes down to managers creating the right workplace conditions. Employee’s part is to:

  1. Follow safety rules
  2. Master standardized work
  3. Call out abnormalities
  4. Be involved in kaizen efforts
  5. Make suggestions

From that point of view, holding recognition events and awards makes a lot of sense, but something as vague as “employee of the month” feels abstract—that the criteria for this is a challenge to define it in a way that aligns with desired actions. To fulfill the eligibility, confidence, trust, and satisfaction criteria, the more specific the award the better. You must also make sure that evaluation is against hard targets, not soft appreciation. Any hint of favoritism or exclusion will simply backfire and turn your award system into what you seem to describe (for instance, “employee of the month” is hard to quantify against a specific goal.)

Awards are always tricky: on the one hand they’re an excellent way to reinforce the direction you wish to go by placing role models on a podium, on the other, every award creates a single winner and many losers. If you have any recognition award system in place, make sure you fit it within a PDCA structure that checks how you’re doing against your goals in creating the awards. After each recognition event, find a way to estimate whether you’ve affected:

  1. Task significance: Do people (beyond the person receiving the award) consider the activity rewarded more significant to themselves and the company, equally significant or less significant?
  2. Empowerment: Do people feel empowered by the event? Do they feel that they have the autonomy to make a difference? Or do they feel disenfranchised and victims of a stifling and unfair system?
  3. Mutual trust: Do people feel they belong to a common tribe, with a common destiny and trust in capable leaders? Or do they feel they are in a me-against-them zero sum game and that the only way to move forward is to look out for number one and/or curry favor with management?

At the end of the day any award system or recognition event is a celebration of belonging to the same company and sharing a commonality of fate – which is a large part of morale, over and beyond individual motivation. As such, people will interpret the award system according to their prior feelings towards the company: do they respect the management giving the award? Do they enjoy working with their colleagues? Do they feel they’re treated fairly by the company as a whole? Does the company represent a larger project they want to be part of?

The answers to such questions make a large difference to how the award system is perceived by whom it means to recognize. To paraphrase a retired general:  if leaders are competent and troops are confident then morale is good – and the award program should work as planned. If not, beware of setting up any such system.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Vitezslav Pilmaier April 30, 2013

This is a very excelent insight into "M" part of the SQDCMs ("The Five Saints" of problem solving as I use to call them when teachning newbies in our company) - actually the social part of the system (such as a company, site, value stream) I found often the most difficult, so the clear things linked / pointed out in this Column get me to new dimensions I will have to think about. Thank you very much.

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