Employees Are People, Not Just Work Units

July 27, 2020 9:00 am Published by

Learn to value employees so they don't become zombies

Let me pose some questions for you:

  *Are you a person or just a production unit?

  *Do you have a life outside of work? (Think: friends, family, interests)

*Are you a person, even at work, beyond your role there and what you get done?

While performing one’s job as expected is critical, I firmly believe that people have worth and value no matter their level of performance. Every person is a unique individual created by God, and we all are intrinsically valuable—apart from what we do or accomplish.

Many employees at all levels, including managers and supervisors, have shared with me their feelings of resentment about getting attention or hearing positive comments only when they meet or exceed the goals set for them. As a result, the employee feels like they are viewed solely as a “work unit” on a spreadsheet.

This issue is especially true for those who are in a strong performance / reward work environment. I had one lead manager tell me: “They don’t give a rip about us personally. As long as our numbers are good, we’re fine. But it is all about performance.”

In working with one company and their call center staff, the challenge of differentiating between recognition for performance and appreciating them as individuals became a significant issue we had to discuss and work through. One supervisor shared his struggles:

 It is actually hard on both ends of the spectrum—both with high achievers and low performers—to not focus solely on their performance. And we have such a strong reward system for meeting goals that, even when I try to call    attention to an action or characteristic that isn’t directly related to meeting their goals, I think my team members still have a hard time hearing (and maybe, believing) that it’s not all about performance.

Believe it or not, most people don’t want to be praised all the time for doing what they are supposed to do.  But it is nice to hear a “thanks” or an acknowledgment (at least occasionally) when you are doing your job. Otherwise, most of the feedback employees get from supervisors comes when they make a mistake, don’t meet a deadline, or aren’t performing in the way desired. (Do we cease to have value when we make a mistake?)

In a previous blog, we talked about the difference between recognition and appreciation. The intent of recognition and appreciation are largely the same—to motivate, to increase the frequency of desired behaviors and results, and to encourage team members. The primary difference is that Recognition focuses primarily on performance, while the focus of Appreciation is on the person (which may or may not include meeting goals for standards of performance). For example, we may appreciate the fact that a colleague is cheerful and positive, even though she may not be a top performer in the group.

Good friend and colleague, Roy Saunderson (author of Real Recognition) mentioned to me that many in the world of HR and recognition are still primarily locked into the belief that rewards (tangible gifts) are the primary motivator of performance, even though research has clearly shown that this is frequently not the case. Roy stated, “Lots of people don’t really think about the difference between recognition and appreciation–they are stuck on the idea that employees wants ‘stuff’ and, as a result, companies waste millions of dollars giving out things people don’t really want.”  (See the research in The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace which thoroughly validates this point.)

The problem that comes from either a pure tangible reward approach or a recognition for performance approach (whether or not tangible gifts are used) is that these perspectives essentially translate “people” into “things” (a production machine) or utilize a pure behavior modification model (think: rats and cheese).

Our recent research with employees who suddenly became remote workers during the COVID-19 pandemic has made this subject even more important. People who have made an effort to stay connected with their fellow workers have been much more successful in coping with the upheaval. And the ways they stay connected often involve talking about or participating in on-line activities that are NOT work related. Managers, supervisors and peers have made it a point to discuss personal issues, funny memes, have virtual coffee breaks and happy hours – all things that connect them as individuals.

We are more than “producers.” We are people. We have personality characteristics, as well as other talents and skills that bring value to life, but may not be directly productivity-enhancing. We must not forget that employees are people (first) who have physical bodies, emotional reactions, goals and desires, as well as families and lives outside of work. When we lose this perspective, then a mechanistic, “people are just resources” workplace develops, where team members are “used up” and then discarded. And no one wants to work there.

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July 27, 2020 9:00 am


  • Fanny says:

    This is so great, thanks! I feel that most people would like to treat others and be treated as humans at work. It’s not that they don’t want it. It’s that it’s difficult. We sometimes have heavy days with issues at home and at work. How can we then be kind to ourselves and to others? It’s an effort, it’s new muscles to build.

  • Diane says:

    I love this reminder to put the human back in our resources. In an exit interview recently, I was given the feedback from an employee that the department manger had never had a personal conversation with her during her 18 months on the job and this would have been nice. Not necessary, and nice. Wow! Her supervisor relationship was good and it was also important to her that the department manager had some level of connection. The employee said that she was going to initiate the conversation with the department manager and decided not to because she was still hoping for a hello or a brief conversation at some time along the way. The seemingly little things….are not so little.

    • Paul White says:

      That’s a great example, Diane. We’ve learned that people really desire to have good relationship with their fellow employees at all levels, peers, supervisors, and mangers.

  • Appreciation is the best language we can offer to our employee

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