When Does Your Engagement Effort Become the Real Problem?

I think I’m like about 99.9% of the world. I have a drink now and then as part of a wind-down ritual. Not every day, but if I’ve had a tough day with lots ‘o idiots, a nice scotch or bourbon – or if I feel especially fancy, a Manhattan, (sans cherry – it’s a drink not fruit salad) – can take the edge off my mood and provide a buffer between work and home. Maybe because that was my Mom and Dad’s ritual when I grew up… martinis in the living room, kids in the TV room. Parent catch-up time. Welcome to 211 Pine Street, Mayfield, Ohio.

That little drink can help make things a bit “softer.”

But like anything with an upside – there is a downside. I’m pretty confident, given our society, anyone reading this has been affected by the abuse of some mood altering substance at some times – as a participant or bystander. Everything has a potential for abuse. And that brings me to my point today.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

John Sumser of HR internet fame (as well as fame in a variety of milieus) hosts a podcast on his site HRExaminer. (Full disclosure – I’m a contributor to the site.) I’ve listened to more than a few (as you should, too), and he commented a few months back on his show that he’d just been at a user conference for the clients of a company that provides software and awards for employee recognition programs. In the podcast, as he was talking about the event, he said (and this is my best recollection) NOT a quote (couldn’t find a link to the podcast – sorry):

“I wonder if all this fanfare and recognition hype artificially inflates the culture and engagement of a company.”

~ NOT a quote…

Think about that for a minute.

We hear, probably more often than we need to, that recognition and rewards are the key drivers of employee engagement. We hear that you can’t give too much recognition. We’re told if you don’t do it every day with every person you are doing it wrong.

In other words – recognition is something you cannot overdo. And I think there is a pinch of truth in that. But at the same time, I wonder if the over-reliance on recognition artificially inflates a culture to the point that the culture ends up in the back seat and the recognition becomes the focus. Not unlike when a drink at the end of the day stops being a way to achieve a goal of relaxing and the drink becomes the goal in and of itself. Very different relationship there.

Does the ubiquity of recognition and the ease at which we can now click and send a “kudos” to anyone in the organization pump up the volume on engagement and culture to artificially high levels? So high, that if for some reason the recognition system crashed, culture would crash, too? I’ve not seen any research on this, but my gut says that it is possible to over-use and over-rely on a system of recognition and reward to the point that it becomes the problem with culture and not a way to enhance and help culture and engagement.

At what point does the means become the ends?

Can your engagement efforts become so over-the-top celebrated and embedded that your employees couldn’t function without it?

Would your culture and your engagement scores suffer terribly if some day you couldn’t do peer-to-peer recognition?

Would your employees revert to Lord of the Flies if they couldn’t see a recognition wall and earn points for coming to work on time?

I don’t know.

But I do know if one person thinks about it that way, others do as well. And, if that person is someone who has played in the HR space and talks about engagement a lot thinks there is a possibility that engagement can be “enhanced” and over-inflated, it is worth thinking about.

Have you seen a company where the culture is usurped by the tool used to enhance it?

Have you seen a culture take a backseat to the recognition tool designed to reveal it?

Can your culture get lost in the tech?

At what point does your solution to engagement become the problem with it?

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Interesting thoughts Paul. If you go back to one of our discussions on Skinnerian reinforcement theory we talked about schedules of reinforcement. Rewarding a behavior every time is not the best way to perpetuate the behavior. Perhaps constantly rewarding engagement is not the best method either.

  2. John McCoy says:

    I am one of THOSE…you know, the guy who just doesn’t have any tolerance for happy horsesh*t.
    Every program has a life cycle, and happiness hoopla is no exception. If it has no point but “happiness” the cycle will be very short.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      But it’s on my to-do list! I’m with you John… if it isn’t authentic it is simply window dressing and fools no one!

  3. Scott A says:

    I’m about to commit HR apostasy. Engagement programs are stupid.

    I like receiving reward points as much as the next guy. Don’t get me wrong. But they’re usually too indirectly linked to the good behavior you’re trying to reinforce for them to have any lasting emotional effect. Especially if they’re iterative rewards where you get 5, 10, 15 points and the “good stuff” all costs 150 or more. And if you’re looking to influence culture, emotional effect is your most powerful lever.

    Engagement is a result, not an activity. Tell people what’s important. Make them understand where they fit into the mission. Listen to them when they recognize you’re doing something stupid and be willing to stop doing the stupid thing. Give memorable rewards to the people who make significant contributions to achieving the mission. Say “thank you” when someone provides discretionary effort. Give the boot to the people who don’t pull their weight. Repeatedly tell your people how great it is to work wherever you work (if you really do pay decently and have competitive benefits). Companies that do these things have great engagement scores.

    Companies that focus on cake and balloons while they’re getting trounced in the marketplace don’t. Companies that constantly ask their employees what’s wrong don’t. (like an insecure significant other “are you mad at me?”) Companies that rely on surveys instead of actual conversations with employees at every level don’t.

    If you can’t tell, this subject drives me crazy.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Thanks for the comment Scott. Better than the post! It truly is as easy as you write it. But we have a problem being human at work – almost like we feel we have to be like the machines on the factory floor that used to add value to the company. That needs to stop.

  4. David Berke says:

    Recognition is easy. Lots of recognition is easy.
    Real engagement is not necessarily about being happy. It’s about having work that is engaging.
    That’s a bit more challenging to accomplish and not as easy to count.
    Certainly it makes sense to say thanks when people work hard and contribute in meaningful ways. But as Scott says above, engagement is a result. It’s not a trophy.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Agree David… but authentic, heartfelt recognition is not easy. Which is why, even with tons of money thrown at new SaaS recognition systems, surveys still show employees don’t feel valued. They know the value is directly related to the effort the other puts into the recognition.

      • David Berke says:

        I agree Paul. The thing is that authentic, heartfelt recognition usually comes from someone who’s paying attention – the direct manager and maybe that person’s manager. It’s usually personal. A recognition system is a system; not a lot of heart there.

        Obviously the direct manager can input to the system, etc. etc. But I find that when you have a system managers often take the easy route and just let the system do the work for them.

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