By Tom Peters

I hate to admit this—even to myself—but at 4:45 a.m. on most Sundays, you’ll find me half awake, impatiently listening for the sound of the Sunday New York Times delivery van. On some pretext, I will sneak downstairs within seconds of the awaited sound, grab the paper, and make a beeline for the best-seller list.

Between In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence, I have been on the list about 170 weeks. I do not tire a bit at seeing my name in print. You see, I am a closet recognition junkie! For better or worse, that affliction unites me with approximately 100 percent of the human race.

Discussions of employee recognition are complex. Cynics accuse management of “trying to avoid a $1-an-hour raise by staging a ‘recognition night’ with pasty Chicken a la King and a $3.95 memento at every table setting.”

Vociferous proponents as well as detractors of employee recognition are worth listening to, but a more basic premise eludes both their arguments. Max DePree, chairman of office-furniture maker Herman Miller, Inc., is on the money when he says, “The conventional wisdom is that American managers have to motivate people. But employees bring their own motivation. What people need from work is to be liberated, to be involved, to be accountable and to reach for their potential.”

I have accordingly struck the idea of manager as motivator from my phrase list. The effective leader’s task is not to turn a magic motivation key in the middle of the worker’s back, but to unleash and guide the existing potential. The one-two-three punch for doing so: ensure preparation (training, for instance); remove unnecessary and demeaning barriers; and recognize achievement.

These topics were tossed about in a recent discussion of a blue-ribbon task force report on incentives in the public sector. The objective was to induce government managers to mount more quality and productivity experiments, big and small. Their problem was to do so in the government’s risk-averse, low-incentive environment. The task force concluded that senior managers should “motivate subordinates to try out more ideas.”

Nonsense! After 25 years of practicing and studying management, I have no idea what “motivating people to try anything” means. But I do know, and it was true in this case, that in any sizable system, no matter how stodgy, the laws of probability ensure that a few brave souls already are trying out new ideas. They are doing so because they think it’s the right thing to do.

The leader’s objective is clear: to provide “it can be done” examples that empower people to try it themselves. The only sure-fire way to do so is via recognition. Laud the budding efforts in every forum. Turn the lonely risk-takers into the new role models. Don’t “motivate” their peers; expose them to the kind of behavior—already going on—that will now be recognized as meritorious. Chide managers who don’t have some interesting tests going on.

Small tests (I call them “small wins”) are as worthy of attention as large ones. Recognition for little victories is a powerful way to spur widespread participation. Pat Townsend has crafted a successful quality-improvement process at the Paul Revere Insurance Co. He is adamant about the importance of recognition for the tiniest of victories, even such things as a quality team’s decision to move a filing cabinet six feet to the right to improve work flow. He argues that such small achievements previously were viewed to be a bureaucratic pain in the neck. Inducing people to understand that action per se is valued and possible, rather than risky or a time-wasting nuisance, is the very essence of gaining momentum for the program. Of course, the reward for a half-million-dollar saving is substantially greater than for a rearranged file cabinet. But heartfelt recognition accompanies small and large successes alike.

As with my Sunday-morning routine with the best-seller list, none of us can get enough recognition. But the indiscriminate pat on the back is a step backward—recognition must be for an act of merit, and it must be commensurate with the achievement.

Some appropriate responses include the manager’s spontaneous purchase of a cake to recognize a project team that just passed an important milestone on schedule. Serve it yourself at the morning coffee break. Or stage a nice dinner to thank all 60 persons in the distribution center at the end of a laudatory quarter.

But one dinner, whether at McDonald’s or Four Seasons, cannot substitute for a well-deserved raise. The point is, one without the other is hollow. An extra dollar per hour (before taxes and other forms of withholding), silently slipped into the paycheck, is as inadequate as a recognition event without a more lasting reward.

Employees come equipped with motivation to a new job, whether a wet-behind-the-ears 19-year-old or a well-seasoned 50-year-old. The leader can either squash that or proactively remove minor barriers and then constantly recognize small accomplishments.

A Marriott property manager I know dashes off 100 thank you notes a month. Have you recognized—today—a minor improvement or a task well done? Will you commit to seeking a minimum of 10 big or small spontaneous or planned recognition opportunities a month?


All rights reserved