WHEN YOU are building a company based on deeper values, it’s critical to align your actions with your employees.

No, I’m not talking about the plaque on the wall stating your principles.  I’m not talking about your employee training program.  Both are important, I suppose, but they lose their value to reinforce attitudes on a day-to-day basis.

In Corporate America lingo, I’m talking about Reinforcement, Recognition, and Rewards.

Reinforcement: What you do when an employee is in the context of making a decision.  It’s that gentle reminder which says, “here’s how we do things around here.”

Recognition: How you publicly show people that they’ve done the right thing.  “Public” in this case is usually internal to your organization, but may on occasion be visible to others as well.

Rewards: This is when you put your money where your mouth is.  An employee receives something tangible and permanent as a reinforcement of doing the right thing.

There’s the negative version of each of these, of course.  You can “negatively reinforce” bad behaviors.  You can provide “negative recognition” by punishing mistakes.  You can penalize people instead of rewarding them.  But I advise against using these tools except in the most drastic cases, lest you create an environment of fear and secretiveness.

Let’s look at an example of using these tools well.  Imagine that a core value of your company is for employees to attend to customer satisfaction, 200% and on the spot.

You just found out that Emily did just that this morning, turning a misunderstanding into a someone who’s now going to become a raving fan.

Your first task is to reinforce that with Emily herself.  You go to her (rather than calling her into your office), and sincerely express your appreciation for what she did.  If there’s other employees in the vicinity who overhear this, so much the better, because you’ll be reinforcing this great example with them as well.  Hopefully it will develop into a viral word-of-mouth story that affects people for days or weeks.

Next, you want to recognize Emily for what she’s done.  This is a bit tricky, though, because some people (and some cultures) are reluctant to feel positive about being placed on any kind of pedestal in front of peers.  This is why you need to develop deep relationships with each employee, getting a feel for what they value.  Maybe it’s a thank-you and your next group meeting, or something a bit more discreet.  The ideal will be when your actions also reinforce with other employees that this is behavior to be modeled, without any animosity or ill feelings toward Emily.

Finally, you’ll want to give Emily an appropriate reward.  If this was a huge deal, then maybe it’s a bonus, a fancy dinner with her spouse, or time off.  What you’re searching for is something which is balanced, not embarrassing, and linked to her contribution.

I happen to be a fan of personalized recognition rather than programs.  A terrible example is the “employee of the month” plaque that you see used in many businesses.  It starts out with good intentions, but then:

  • You realize that you’re constantly recognizing a few top people, and others might become demotivated and resentful.  So you change the criteria so it becomes more of a “round-robin” affair.
  • Employees pick up on this, and realize that it no longer reflects any real recognition.
  • After a few more months, people “conveniently” forget about the whole thing and the plaque stays on the wall, half empty, as a discouraging reminder of yet another failed management fad.

I’m not overstating things – I see these kinds of plaques all the time, with the last name listed about 5 years ago. That thing is continuing to do damage to employee morale.

Your challenge, as the intelligent business leader, is to find the appropriate balance:

  • Fair
  • Appropriate
  • Not entirely predictable, but not random either
  • Reinforces the right way of thinking

When you find that, you’ll do wonders for your employees, and they’ll see you as an interesting  and motivating leader.