During the prior weeks, the employees had earned so-called Magnum dollars—named after department's manager, who wore a "Magnum, P.I."-style mustache. That afternoon they cashed in, "buying" such rewards as T-shirts, front-row parking spaces, massages, executive chairs and noise-canceling headsets. Nearly everyone walked away with something, says Burton De La Garza, events and celebrations manager.
"I could buy one big-screen TV and give it to one person," De La Garza says. "Or I could give everyone in that organization something tangible that they could have. Our company believes in giving something to as many people as you can."
De La Garza echoes those who argue that recognition can never be excessive if tied to exemplary work. But some recognition professionals and psychologists question if generational dynamics are posing new challenges, as younger employees enter the workforce after years of accumulating soccer trophies and extra credit. The dilemma for managers: how to recognize those craving kudos without creating "soft" employees?
"[Companies] can't spend all their money giving pats on the back. There has to be some kind of balance here." —Jean Twenge, psychologist and author of the book Generation Me
"So many people in business are having a difficult time dealing with the expectations of the younger generation," says Jean Twenge, a psychologist and author of the book Generation Me, based on her own research into generational differences. Managers speak of younger employees with outsized expectations, anticipating a management position within a few years, or those who crumble at a whiff of criticism, she says.
"Companies have to worry rightly about retention because retraining employees is expensive," says Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. "But they can't spend all their money giving pats on the back. There has to be some kind of balance here."
To be effective, managers must learn how to credit exceptional work without devaluing the recognition power they wield, says Ken Siegel, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and president of the Impact Group, which works with Fortune 500 companies. To that end, Siegel recommends that managers make sure any rewards aren't in excess of the employee's accomplishment. And recognition shouldn't become predictable, in either timing or approach, because that saps the meaning, he says.
Above all, set clear expectations. At times, that might require "a little tough love," says Bob Nelson, author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees. "When the [employee] complains about not being recognized, you can have a little discussion over what it would take to recognize them," he says.
Siegel and Nelson, though, are skeptical that most employees are showered in praise.
According to a 2006 Maritz poll involving 1,003 adults, only 43 percent agreed that they were consistently recognized in meaningful ways.
Baby boomer managers might be exposing their own psychological baggage when they kvetch about the alleged neediness of younger workers, Siegel says.
"It's almost an envy-based attack," he says. "It's the same praise and recognition that they would have liked to have had heaped on them."
Workforce Management, September 24, 2007, p. 28 -- Subscribe Now!