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favoritism in recognition

4 min read

One of the biggest challenges that leaders face is finding different 'levers' or tools they can use to better connect with and enhance the performance of their team. As we ask managers to use recognition as a tool, this can lead to challenges; in the absence of a structured or consistent approach to employee recognition, things can get a little bit hairy. When people are not recognised it's common to hear complaints like, "it's always Joe in the spotlight," or "it's like Mike (the boss) doesn't even know we exist!".

Instead of recognition inspiring the team to great performance, it can create division. The same people getting recognised can lead to eye rolls rather than learning moments. 

It can be easy for employees to chalk the “inequity” up to favouritism vs. performance differences.

To lessen the eye rolls, and increase the momentum behind using recognition as a strategic leadership tool, as a manager, the key is to actively seek out moments where your people have made an impact every day. We need to keep in mind that success is a journey and our employees are all looking to us to reinforce that they're on the right track, but you have to do it in the right way. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind to create harmony and alignment, and not friction and resentment.

setting clear expectations

Set (and reset!) clear expectations for your team

Make sure that everyone has an equal chance to deliver on job responsibilities by clearly communicating them. When your team has clearly outlined KPI's or goals (or whatever you call them in your business), not only do they know what they're playing for every day, they're also in a better position to understand how their input makes an impact on the wider business goals/strategies. When people more clearly understand their individual 'why' and know what they need to deliver they'll ask less questions and just get on with it, leaving you more time to positively reinforce their great behaviour.

Be consistent and frequent with continuous recognition

If you only recognise a few people a year, the spotlight will absolutely be more on them. Those few instances are sure to get examined extra closely. In an environment that is lacking recognition, this is only natural that people may feel possessive about those few dollops of praise you are sharing!

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If you remind yourself to find things to recognise on a regular basis, any concerns about favouritism should fade as the recognition is spread around. The goal is to be able to spot achievements any time, any where, and see and recognise your people in the moment.

Frequency and immediacy are key to fair employee recognition. But if this is new to you or is something you know you've found challenging in the past, then creating regular opportunities to recognise your people is the first step to making it more effective.

Set a goal to spend 10 minutes each week considering the work of those around you to give yourself a chance to spot great work. As you train yourself to spot recognition moments, it might take even less time than that to substantially increase how consistently you recognise others.

favoritism in recognition

Don’t be afraid to recognise for “doing the job”

Some people’s roles may not lend themselves to going wildly above and beyond. The value they provide might be in how they do the day-to-day actions of their role more efficiently or a bit more effectively. Don’t be afraid to give them credit for these skills. The most common example I hear is people in working in what we traditionally know as 'supporting' roles. A good example is the finance team – the people responsible for paying us on time are often starving for praise and it's because they're generally quiet achievers and it's actually the little efficiencies they're creating every day that lead to big impacts for our business. They too could be delivering $300K to the bottom line, but unlike our sales people they're not going to be shouting about it!

These people are just deserving of recognition. Considering the simple, but powerful ways people help will open up additional opportunities for well-deserved recognition.  

Recognise the action, not just the person

Make sure that when you tell or write recognition you are specific about what the person did. If recognition is: “Thanks to John who really stepped up!” the focus is the person. In this case, it is easier to dismiss the recognition. If, instead, the leader focuses more on the actions:

John you lived our value of 'own it' today by sourcing a cheaper supplier for our printer ink. Because you saw an opportunity and made a 5 minute call we'll save $2,500 a year as a business making an impact on overall profits.

With this recognition, I understand what John actually did and how it helped our business. This knowledge makes it harder to argue the merit of the recognition and educates others on what John does to earn this praise.

favoritism in recognition

Track participation to spot gaps

Despite your best efforts at recognising, there will always be the quiet achievers – they aren’t as visible or they are frequently working independently and others don’t witness their efforts.

One of the benefits of having a structured recognition program in place is that you can use reporting to review your teams contribution each week.

Reporting will also highlight any moment's your team have received from their colleagues that you may have missed enabling you to further that moment by adding your own praise or perhaps even financial reward. If you periodically check who has (and hasn’t) received recognition in the past few months you can check to see if some deserving people have missed out on getting recognised. This is especially easy if you are using an online recognition wall. If you do find people that haven’t been recognised in a while, think through their work (or ask those that work closely with them to do the same).

With all this being said, if you have team members who you are struggling to recognise and who aren't being recognised by others - maybe there's something bigger at play (but that's something we can cover in a whole new blog post!). If someone hasn’t been recognised and you really don’t think they are doing good work, don’t recognise them just to 'check a box.' If someone isn’t working up to standard, a coaching conversation can help get their work jump started. Of course, if their efforts improve after that conversation, you now have an opportunity to highlight this effort via one-on-one or public recognition!

I hope that these tips will ensure that concerns about favouritism won’t get in the way of leaders using recognition as a strategic tool. A little bit of positive reinforcement goes a long way and as you get into the habit of recognising more frequently, you'll find others start to recognised you for your great work too!

Kylie Terrell

Kylie Terrell is our Australia Director of Consultancy and is RG’s resident advocate for employee recognition. She loves creating “wow” moments and looking for creative ways to make her coworkers and clients feel special.

Australia Director of Consultancy

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