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4 Recognition Pitfalls Managers Should Be Aware Of (and How to Avoid Them)

Published: July 13, 2021

Last Updated: January 24, 2023

  7 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux


Employees want recognition, that's for sure. But even recognition pitfalls can still happen. Here's what managers can do to avoid these common recognition traps.

Picture this scenario: it's your birthday.

Your significant other gives you a gift. Your day just got a little better. But your surprise, the gift isn't exactly what you envisioned. 

Besides being a generic item you can buy anywhere, it isn't something you need or want. Your significant other missed all your hints. There's no card or nice wrapping either.

In short, very little thought or effort has been put into it. 

How does that make you feel? 

If this is a one-time thing, you might shrug it off, say thank you, and hope for a better gift next time. On the other hand, if this is a pattern, your feelings may turn sour over time as your resentment grows. 

The same thing can happen when managers give recognition at work. 

Unexpected problems

First off, let's be clear on one thing. Giving someone a gift is almost always a good thing. And so is offering your employees recognition. In other words, employees want recognition as much as their managers can provide.

Nevertheless, recognition can sometimes have unexpected downsides, just like in the case of a missed expectation in gift-giving.

But keep in mind, employees' negative reactions are usually caused by a pattern or habit around recognizing employees rather than by a one-time event.

Luckily, managers can avoid any negative patterns easily.

Awareness is the first step. In fact, you're already doing a lot to help yourself by reading this article!

Having read this article, you will understand how to provide genuine and meaningful recognition that will positively impact your team as a whole, not just the individual employees.


4 Recognition Pitfalls Managers Should Be Aware Of (and How to Avoid Them)

Giving low-effort recognition to “go through the motions”

Employee recognition is standard management practice. Yet, many managers are busy and overworked. Or worse, they don't feel sufficiently recognized or valued themselves. People at all levels want to feel appreciated, even in the highest positions.

As a result of this reality, managers might feel obligated to provide recognition as a part of their duties. Or they may give low-effort praise to "go through the motions."

The problem is that employees are human, and just like everyone else, they can tell when recognition isn't genuine. 

When employees receive mediocre praise regularly, these words risk feeling shallow, and at worse, completely insincere. 

Fortunately, the solution is simple: 

  • First, only give recognition when it's true. In other words, praise employees when you feel they truly deserve it, not because it must be ticked off your to-do list. It doesn't matter if that's only once a month.
  • Second, don't be afraid to give recognition spontaneously. You don't only need to give recognition for big accomplishments. You can show your encouragement in small and consistent ways more regularly.

Consider this: Imagine you receive a gift unexpectedly on any random day, other than a birthday or holiday. It's always special to receive a surprise gift, no matter how small! 

Unexpected praise outside of an official work achievement or milestone is often the most meaningful and lasting. 

In the same vein, you should avoid setting strict recognition goals like you must give out at least ten recognitions every month. Doing so reduces recognition to a task on a to-do list, only reinforcing that feeling of obligation. In the end, praise risks coming across as insincere, and it will be less effective as a result.

Bottom line: Don't give recognition just to say you did it to your manager or director. In short, managers should be aware of the importance of expressing appreciation, but most importantly, of doing it mindfully and sincerely.

Giving recognition solely based on performance

If you only celebrate outstanding work by a few people, what kind of message are you sending? Great work should be recognized, of course. However, it may unintentionally convey that people who don't achieve the same level of excellence are less valuable.

Since recognition has traditionally worked this way, managers are biased toward praising outstanding work. 

For instance, the classic yearly evaluations that typically focus on performance. Employees are celebrated for their productivity, such as achieving sales goals or deploying a new feature. 

Even though praise for achieving the organization's goals is important, focusing too much on celebrating performance has some major drawbacks. 

  • First, It can seem impersonal to recognize workers only based on performance, as it might make them feel like just another unit of production (and less like individuals). 

  • Secondly, the focus on top performance can create a situation in which only a handful of top performers receive regular praise. In contrast, other team members -- who contribute to a team, just in less visible ways -- feel left out.

It goes without saying; managers should praise employees who raise the bar and achieve goals. Yet managers should also make an effort to bring attention to the rest of the contributions as well.

Managers can achieve this by celebrating employees for both work and non-work related things, for example:

  • An employee's quiet dedication. 
  • Their supportive attitude.
  • A wonderful sense of humour.

In turn, everyone on your team feels appreciated and valued — even employees who played less visible roles. 

Recognizing unhealthy work practices

When employees truly go above and beyond, like working late nights or weekends to finish a project, this shows true dedication, and it most definitely should be recognized by a manager. That type of trust and dedication is rare. 

However, it’s a tricky situation for managers. 

Often, getting in the habit of working late, always being available, or working weekends can become unhealthy for individuals, or worse, set harmful standards for a team. And most importantly, this is a work expectation that is not realistic for everyone. Other employees may be juggling outside passions, hobbies, or simply taking care of themselves and their families. 

By focusing your recognition too much on displays of unhealthy work habits, you may inadvertently send the message that to succeed; one must meet that high standard.

This will have a similar consequence to giving only performance-based recognition. It can lead to managers only praising a handful of top performers, or in this case, the people who are highly dedicated. 

This can cause feelings of favouritism and resentment on a team. At the very least, those employees who do their jobs well but who aren’t as dedicated after 5 p.m. can feel left out, or as if what they are doing is not enough. When in reality, they are performing well at their jobs.

That said, you can avoid feelings of resentment or frustration among your team member keeping in mind a few key actions:

  • Recognize less visible actions, too:  It’s OK to occasionally praise employees for going above and beyond and putting in long hours. But you have to balance it out by recognizing less visible actions and efforts too. In short, make an effort to praise employees who play less visible roles as well.

  • Be explicit about your expectations: If an employee goes above what is expected by working long hours, it’s OK to show recognition for that effort and time. But you can also be explicit with your team and say that those long hours are not expected of everyone. 

Giving the same type of recognition all the time

Think about my lacklustre birthday gift scenario at the top of this article.

No one is perfect, and these types of blunders happen. But when it becomes a pattern, that's when things start to become problematic.

The same idea applies to recognition at work. 

The recognition or praise you give will not always be perfect or completely inspiring. That's not the goal because it's simply not realistic to expect that from any busy manager. 

The goal is to make varied recognition a consistent habit.

For instance, you could do this by offering small tokens of recognition during the weeks, like saying "thank you for that" at a one-on-one meeting. Or a quick shout-out during a team meeting. But then, when more significant accomplishments are made, making that extra effort to be more meaningful and personal.

What you want to avoid is always giving the same type of recognition. In other words, you want to avoid falling into a pattern of giving the same type of recognition all the time.

For example, think about a manager that saves all their recognition for the end of each quarter. But on a weekly basis employees rarely hear a peep of encouragement. 

Or conversely, think of a manager who always ends Friday meetings by saying encouraging things like, "great job this week, team," but never goes the extra mile to acknowledge the individual achievements. In both cases, it's only a matter of time before that recognition becomes ineffective.

There are three main ways to sprinkle some variety into your recognition:

  • Frequency & Time: Make an effort to provide small notes of recognition on a regular basis, not only during formal evaluations, or only on Fridays at the end of the week. 

  • Group vs. Individual: It’s critical to acknowledge group effort, but also be more specific and recognize your employees individually as well. 

  • Format & Effort: While verbal recognition is important, sometimes a little extra effort is warranted. Perhaps that means writing a short email that has more substance and detail or sending your employee a small gift with a note. 

Talk to Your Employees 

As a manager, you might think you give sufficient recognition. But chances are, your employees don't feel as appreciated as you think. 

Research shows a big disconnect between how good managers believe they are at giving recognition and how appreciated their employees actually feel. 

Not to mention, according to Gallup’s research, a lack of recognition remains one of the most common reasons why employees leave an organization.

You can’t appreciate your employees on their way out the door. That’s why it’s vital to ensure your team is feeling consistently valued and appreciated in the here and now.

The best way to understand how your team is feeling is to go straight to the source.

For example, at your next one-on-one meetings, you can make a point to let employees know you want to make sure they are feeling appreciated and valued, and ask some of the following questions to help you with your recognition efforts. 

  • Do you feel recognized and appreciated for the work you do?
  • How can I better support and show recognition for your work?
  • What type of recognition do you prefer to receive? 

You may find it odd at first to discuss this topic with your employees. Yet sometimes, an honest and open conversation is necessary. Keeping track of employee expectations in terms of recognition (and if you're meeting them) is vital in ensuring that no employee is left feeling frustrated or resentful.

Final Thoughts

Receiving a generic or low-effort gift can feel upsetting. But if it doesn't happen consistently, most people will shrug it off and thank their partners anyway. 

In the same vein, is it ok if you put a little less effort into your recognition sometimes because you’re so busy? Of course, it is!

The four types of recognition mentioned above are not inherently bad. Rather, it's the overuse of a specific type of recognition that can lead to employee negativity or resentment.  

To that end, avoiding recognition pitfalls is all about two things: balance and open communication.

With those two factors in play, you’ll be sure to consistently meet individual employee expectations, but also, maintain positive morale among your entire team.

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A Happier Workplace


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