Are you playing the game, or just getting played?

Exception is a Poor Rule

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is http://www.clemmer.net/

I once met an executive who proudly described his approach to recognizing employees’ work as “management by exception.”

“If you haven’t heard from me, that’s a good sign,” he explained. “That means I think you’re doing just fine. I only deal with the exceptions. I look for problems and people that need correcting. Those are what I jump on.”

This is one of three common approaches I see managers take in recognizing people. Unfortunately, variations on management by exception are also the leading causes of the demoralization and fear rampant in many organizations.

This approach makes people feel criticized, then ignored, unappreciated and used. They feel like pieces of equipment or just so many assets with skin wrapped around them.

Organization consultant John Scherer calls the approach “gap-zap.” When things are going well, nothing is said – we leave a gap. When things get off track or there’s a problem, we zap our employees.

That same approach is damaging in personal life. The manager who bragged about his use of management by exception also talked about his failed first marriage. “What really drove me crazy were her constant complaints that I never told her I loved her,” he complained.

“I married her didn’t I? Obviously, I loved her. Why did I need to keep saying it then?”

The second widespread approach to recognition is flattery and manipulation. This form of so-called praise does more harm than good, because it is obviously designed to control and dominate.

On a personal level, it is reflected in the overblown style of managers who “lay it on thick.” The compliments are usually out of proportion to the deed or person they’re addressing. (“We could never survive without your contributions.”) Or the phony flattery is vague and general. (“You do great work.”)

Many managers have built extensive recognition programs and practices around this approach. They hand out prizes, awards and “atta boy” comments like they reward the family dog with a biscuit and a pat on the head. One company actually handed out stickers, plaques and merchandise as part of their “Atta Boy/Girl” program of recognition.

The third, more valuable approach is sincere recognition and genuine appreciation – the kind that we all thrive on. It reflects the beliefs of 19th century American philosopher William James, who once wrote: “The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

Some managers think a sense of accomplishment is enough reward for high performance. But it feels even better when other people notice and appreciate what we’ve done. Recognition continually shows up near the top of lists of motivational factors. It is a big source of the fun and excitement so vital to improving performance continually.

Effective leaders use a lot of ways to build an atmosphere of accomplishment and pride through recognition and appreciation. But the leaders should not be the central figures in control of the goodies. They should encourage recognition and appreciation up, down and across the organization and within and among teams.

As I compare organizations, it becomes clear that the high-performance cultures are those that radiate sincere recognition. It’s also clear that they’re led by managers with well-developed personal recognition skills. They know that brains and hearts go where they are truly appreciated.