Recognize
April 29, 2021

Toxic Recognition

Toxic Recognition

Awardco is an organization that is built on recognition. We’re all about recognizing everyone for just about everything, and you better believe we practice what we preach. We recognize each other all day every day, and for all kinds of things. Close a huge sales deal? Recognized. Post a great photo of your vacation? Recognized. Have a great team meeting with lots of stellar collaboration? Recognized.

There is, however, a darker side to recognition that we didn’t anticipate. We’ve talked a lot about it internally and we’ve come to call it “toxic recognition.” What is toxic recognition? It’s that feeling you get when you’re working hard and people around you are getting recognized, but you might not be. It’s that gut-punch when someone is recognized for doing something that’s truly amazing (like working while they’re on vacation to close a deal or something), but shouldn’t be used as a standard for everyone.

Toxic recognition is, to use an oft-used phrase, when recognition becomes too much of a good thing. It may begin to poison the well a little bit. Let’s break it down and talk about what toxic recognition is, how to spot it, and what you can do to make recognition part of an amazing, and balanced, workforce. 

What is it?

We mentioned some of it above, but let’s really dig in to what can make recognition toxic in your workplace:

Too much recognition can make it feel watered down and disingenuous.

Recognition is like pizza. It’s comforting and tasty. Why else do you think we reward our teams with pizza parties more than anything else? Recognition, like pizza, is something we all understand and appreciate as a good thing, even if we don’t LOVE it. But too much of it makes it seem less excellent, less valuable, and less special. It feels watered down. And when recognition is given for every little thing, it loses that special something that makes it great in the first place. 

Recognition can make others feel worse about their contributions because they’re not getting recognized.

This is a tough nut to crack, because so many emotions and interpersonal dynamics are at play. When you’re working hard, but not getting recognized, does that make you less valuable than your coworkers that ARE getting recognized? Definitely not. 

Some roles are more behind the scenes, and therefore the lower visibility makes recognition less likely. And let’s not forget that some of us are introverts, and the fact of the matter is that more outspoken people tend to be recognized more often. That’s okay! But we can all do better about being more diverse and inclusive in recognizing others.

Without regular recognition, employees can feel like their job might not be as secure as they thought. What kind of message are you sending if you only recognize a few people for exceptional work? Certainly that exceptional work should be applauded, but on the other hand, are you telling your other employees they’re less valuable if they don’t achieve the same level of greatness?

Recognition for achievement can sometimes set an inappropriate standard.

When you recognize someone for staying late every night, that’s awesome. That person is working hard and showing exemplary dedication to doing a good job, and SHOULD be recognized! However, how do other employees feel who don’t stay late every night? It’s going to make them feel like they have to stay late in order to keep their job, or that the only way they’ll get recognized is by working extra hours. It’s going to set a precedent that will spiral out of control, and nobody wants that. 

How do you fix it?

Don’t stop recognizing—but DO be more genuine. 

Recognition is a good thing. Let’s make that abundantly clear. Under no circumstances should you find an excuse to NOT recognize because you’re afraid it might dilute the other recognitions you give. If you’ve been thinking about recognizing someone—act on it immediately.

To avoid making recognition feel watered down and disingenuous, make sure you are as genuine as possible in every way, and with every recognition. How do you do this? Be specific. Instead of “Hey Bob, thanks for being great.” (Not a bad recognition in its own right, but still) say something like “Hey Bob, you really put a lot of effort into the welfare project last week, and it really shows. Thank you for all you do.” 

Here’s another pro-tip: along with being specific, be TIMELY. If Bob did the thing a month or two ago, a recognition that long after the fact won’t have as much impact. 

Recognize for a variety of things, including non-work things.

In any organization, recognizing high-performers can have the unintended consequence of demotivating other employees that are doing their best. That can be a dangerous situation, because it’s hard to manage how individuals internalize the recognitions of others. Still though, this can be mitigated easily when you recognize employees for many different things, and in many different ways:

* When someone participates in something outside of work (a marathon, an art competition, a theater production)

* When someone is exceptionally helpful at something that’s not necessarily in their job description

* Creativity in solving a difficult problem

* For noticing others when they might have been struggling 

* Accomplishments aren’t the only thing worth recognizing; character traits individuals bring to the team are just as valuable. Perhaps you admire someone’s sense of humor or their ability to see complicated issues from multiple perspectives.

* Winning workplace competitions or giving extra effort on team-building activities.

* Recognize that your employees are more than employees—they’re people, and they have a life outside of work.

Be honest with the rest of your organization about the recognitions.

When a team member goes above and beyond, that absolutely deserves recognition. And it should be motivating to employees to achieve the same. However, if an individual is recognized repeatedly for efforts that shouldn’t be expected from all employees (like answering phone calls at all hours of the night), it’s important you make sure that your organization knows that expectation doesn’t hold for everyone.

This can definitely be challenging, because it requires walking a fine line between celebrating excellence and yet managing expectations. If you don’t know what to say, try this:

“We’d like to recognize Jan for truly going above and beyond. She’s been working incredibly hard to help with this project by working late hours, often late into the night. Thank you, Jan! We want to be sure that she’s recognized, and we’re pretty sure that she’ll be the first one to tell you that this isn’t required of everyone. We hope you feel empowered to achieve greatness in your role wherever you are, but we recognize that this is a failing on our part that has made her have to put in such crazy hours. Thank you, Jan!”

From Toxic to Totally Rad

Recognition in the workplace is an important part of a balanced culture. In fact, it’s the most IMPORTANT part of your culture. Without it, your company won’t foster the same level of inclusion, celebration, and support. Being thoughtful about how you recognize will help you encourage the right behaviors, and will build the culture you really want.

Above all, don’t hesitate to recognize others! Employee recognition is always a good thing, and the fallout, if there is any, can be easily mitigated with a little honesty and vulnerability. What may be helpful, though, is to remember to be thoughtful. Your employees are people with hopes and dreams and lives outside of work. Think about that the next time you give a recognition—and consider how your recognition might be impacting the team, or culture, as a whole.


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