Should Appreciation Be Performance Based?

August 1, 2022 9:00 am Published by

A question I often hear when I’m conducting training for a business is: Should you show appreciation to someone who isn’t performing well? The reply you receive may depend on who is answering the question.

Friction exists in the world of recognition and rewards, employee engagement, and appreciation. Differences of opinion are prevalent on the relationship between an employee’s performance and recognizing them. Should you recognize an employee if they aren’t doing well in all areas of performance? Is appreciation independent of performance?

To address the issue, I think we need to keep two foundational principles in mind (and acknowledge that a natural tension exists between them):

   *The purpose of work is to provide goods or services to customers in a profitable manner.

   *People are more than production units, even at work.

Both sides of the argument have valid points. Wise supervisors don’t communicate recognition without considering employee performance. For example, why would you reward an employee who doesn’t show up to work regularly or on time? There are some bottom-line behaviors that need to be in place — showing up is one of them.

Conversely, if employees are only recognized when they produce results above and beyond the norm, they begin to feel that they are only valued as a production unit and not as a person.

When thinking about newer team members, a helpful mental image is that of a youth sports coach. When a child is learning a sport, good coaches don’t berate or punish them if they cannot perform some of the higher-level skills. Rather, coaches encourage and support good effort on behaviors that approximate what they are looking for. They try to shape the athlete’s performance closer and closer to the desired goal. If the focus is solely on what a new team member isn’t doing well, the player can get discouraged and give up.

I think the same is true with employees who are growing into their job, whether they are new to the workforce, new to the company, or new to their position. Supervisors should focus on and encourage those actions that are moving in the right direction. Then when appropriate, give gentle corrective instruction on critical skills that are still lagging.

A critical issue to consider: most recognition for performance programs typically only touch the top 10-15% of a work group, with the same top achievers being recognized repeatedly. That leaves the solid 50-60% of employees in the middle who show up, try hard, and do a decent job but they aren’t the stars. This solid middle group often don’t hear anything from their supervisors and are a high-risk group for leaving (research shows 79% of the employees who leave voluntarily cite a lack of appreciation as one of the key reasons they quit).

Differentiating Recognition and Appreciation

One of the core concepts we believe is that recognition for performance is not the same as communicating appreciation for the person. Since we sometimes appreciate something about a colleague that we also want to recognize, there is some overlap between the two concepts. But we firmly maintain that every employee and team member is a person foundationally and foremost. Each of us had a life before we became an employee, we have a life currently outside of work, and who we are is more than what we get done at work.

Recognition for performance is a good thing (especially when the process is designed well and implemented consistently). For decades, research has consistently shown that the vast majority of people perform better when they set goals, pursue those goals and receive some type of reward when they achieve them. And the results help their organizations function better and (often) become more profitable.

However, too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily what is best for the person or organization.  Focusing solely on performance and output clearly leads to commoditizing employees – they just become another asset or resource to use to achieve organizational goals – which leads to high levels of burnout and “using up” hard working employees.

The Focus of Appreciation: The Person

One of the interesting (and beneficial) aspects of understanding and affirming that each employee is a person is that it leads to a discovery and celebration of a wider range of strengths, abilities and character qualities beyond what they do for work. When we broaden our view to include characteristics we value in others, we start to see the person more holistically: their strengths as a soccer coach, their personal discipline in training for a marathon, their love and commitment to their children, their fun sense of humor or their ability to stay calm and clear-headed in times of stress. None of these characteristics will typically be on their performance goals for the year, but each demonstrates a characteristic we can appreciate in them.

Appreciation can be communicated for characteristics that aren’t directly related to productivity. I personally enjoy working with cheerful people more than grumps, or colleagues who don’t complain a lot in contrast to negative reactors and whiners. And I can express appreciation to a colleague for these positive character qualities even if they are not the highest producer on the team.

So, don’t wait for someone to be a top performer before communicating appreciation to them. If you do, they might be gone before you have a chance.


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August 1, 2022 9:00 am

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