Feature Article - September/October 2008

The Recognition Factor in Motivating Peak Performance

Manager-Employee Relationships Can Make or Break a Program

By Catherine Eberlein Pfister

In today's business landscape there is an increasing connection between a company's financial performance and its overall ability to recruit, engage and retain its employees.

This month we look at the importance of recognition in any successful employee engagement strategy, and particularly the manager's critical role in recognition efforts.

In coming months we'll look at other employee engagement business strategies, including how multicultural workforces are changing the employee landscape and what a global workforce means to incentive development and management.

The Recognition Factor in Motivating Peak Porformance
Manager-Employee Relationships Can Make or Break a Program

n the senior or middle management ranks, the lines of distinction often become blurred between what constitutes employee awards, rewards (incentives) and recognition—almost as if they are basically one and the same: "We give awards and incentives to our employees so isn't that in itself recognition?"

Some managers cringe at the thought of being involved in anything related to employee engagement: "This recognition stuff is just soft and fuzzy. It's not my style." Others flat out refuse: "I don't have time for it, and it's not going to benefit me."

"As a speaker and coach, I often work with managers who just don't 'get' what their role is in the recognition process. It is critical that they do," said Cindy Ventrice, management consultant and author of the book Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works. She focuses exclusively on helping organizations improve operations, products and services by improving workplace relationships and employee morale.

"Managers erroneously believe that the award or rewards should speak for themselves—even to the point that they assume the award or reward is the recognition," Ventrice noted. "Managers also may assume that their commitment to and involvement with recognition efforts isn't all that important."

These assumptions, however, are far from reality. Poor manager-employee relationships can undermine the effectiveness of any employee engagement strategy. They may be at the root of a program that falls flat, that doesn't provide performance results or return on investment. And they can make a huge difference in whether employees view programs with suspicion or embrace them with open arms.

"Managers often don't understand that the success of an employee engagement program is a direct reflection of their relationship with their employees," Ventrice explained. As the manager, they can connect the dots between what the employee does and what the organization does. When an employee sees the importance of their roles, they will feel more motivated.

Connecting those dots comes in many forms, all reflecting the importance of the manager-employee relationship. Here are a few of the most critical ones, garnered from Ventrice's 20 years of experience and extensive study:

Managers must own the company's recognition program. "Reward and recognition planners must know that their human resources or communications departments should never be the face of the program," Ventrice stressed. "Managers should be competent at recognition in general and in using your program. They should participate in peer programs, celebrate organizational awards and actively use any manager programs."

Programs run by managers who know what makes recognition meaningful and know how to provide it "translate into higher engagement, retention, loyalty and productivity. The type of recognition that employees crave is manager-driven," emphasized Ventrice. "And in fact, performance results are phenomenal when managers drive recognition efforts. Seventy-one percent of the most meaningful employee recognition comes from the manager or supervisor."

Executives have to be committed to employee engagement. This includes getting their managers to use programs, and giving them the training and tools to do it. "Being accountable for recognition has to be built into a manager's performance evaluation, and as such, they need to be recognized and rewarded for their results," Ventrice said. "In some of the companies I've worked with, managers are given a budget for recognition and they are expected to use it. If they don't use it, that's a markdown for them—it's a negative. They are asked, 'Why aren't you taking advantage of it?'"