When Does Your Engagement Effort Become the Real Problem?

Paul Hebert Audacious Ideas, Culture, Employee Engagement, Paul Hebert, Recognition

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?