“You are applauding yourselves.”—Russian president, Vladimir Putin

Look at these faces and applause. Do you see a celebration of someone’s past or someone’s future? Acknowledgement or encouragement? Both?

Or is the applause about something completely different, perhaps veiled—like self-congratulation, or submission and acknowledgement of power gaps?

Identifying what is being celebrated can be tough—but not impossible—and, however ritualized the celebration may be, also very, very important.

Recognition: Its Dynamics and Consequences

You’re in a performance-review or rah-rah pep-talk meeting with colleagues. Which do you want to get or give more—encouragement, or acknowledgment?

The first clue that these are different—and perhaps in a strategically important way—is that even though they can be expressed the same way, e.g., through a pat on the back, broad smiles, a gold watch, a bonus or applause, the former is primarily, explicitly and sometimes, only future-oriented, whereas the latter is primarily, although not entirely, past-oriented.

That’s a difference that, behaviorally, motivationally, sociologically, economically and morally can make a big difference.

When an employee’s performance is celebrated or recognized in some way, e.g., an employee-of-the-month plaque, that employee can interpret that celebration as either encouragement, acknowledgment or both—or even perhaps as neither, and something entirely else, with contrasting ramifications for that employee’s perspective on past, present and future performance, and for his future performance itself.

Why and how does that difference matter? After all, isn’t it usually the case that the celebration and recognition accomplishes both, with a bow to the past and a nod to the future?—Just as it does when a little kid on stage, playing Für Elise on her ukulele in a school talent show, soaks up the applause.

The Backfiring Bonus

To see how it can make a huge difference, and as a case study, consider stock broker, mortgage-fund manager and CEO bonuses—Wall Street executive mega-bonuses—just after and despite their Wall Street-enabled [engineered?] crash of 2008.

What was that deal? “Reward” and acknowledgement for skillful mismanagement of disastrous subprime loans and junk bonds? Or encouragement to try to “do better” next time—or at least to formulate better criteria of what it means to “do better”, e.g., doing good, rather than mostly doing very well for oneself?

Or were some of those bonuses something else, e.g., bribes to never testify under oath, write a tell-all book or do interviews in some public forum?

With each such broker, manager or CEO who interpreted the bonus as exoneration, i.e., as acknowledgement or validation, the risk of history repeating itself in another catastrophic greed-fest grows.

That’s like being given a ticket—to a policeman’s ball, after being pulled over for speeding through a school zone, and the bonus chance to hold his gun.

Now, it is probably unlikely that psychologically, morally and tactically—some or many of those Wall Street bonuses were offered as a kind of bar mitzvah bonanza or seed money to accomplish good works [for the benefit of mankind] with such a goodly, when not ungodly pile of cash.

But, if even one of those bonuses was offered with the intent of reforming the beneficiary, an “acknowledgement-encouragement gap” and gulf opened up the moment the bonus envelope was torn open and seen as a license for more unfettered license.

There’s a lesson in this: When doling out high-stakes bonuses, incentivizing or reassuring praise or any other kind of largesse, make sure of these two things:

1. That it is clear to both of you why you are doing it.

2. That it is more likely to have the effect you want it to have than not.

Simple advice—but important, often ignored advice. For if you fail to heed either of these precepts, your mission as a benefactor of the beneficiary and possibly of the larger world will be at risk—in more ways and scenarios than one. Examples:

  • You’re offering the bonus as a bribe; but the beneficiary sees it as a windfall with which to scrub his guilt-ridden conscience and donates it to funding for a client class-action suit against you and the other suits.
  • The bonus was given on a “get it-or-forget it” basis, viz., to maintain the company’s annual bonus inflationary momentum and nothing more [if that were not enough], but is construed by the recipient as exoneration of all past practices—including the shady ones that will now shadow him, like a dark tag-along, to his next gig.
  • Even though both of you see the bonus as encouragement rather than acknowledgement, you can still differ on exactly what is being encouraged—as argued above, e.g., preservation of the beneficiary’s moral and professional status quo or an inducement to find a new line of work, if the bonus isn’t big enough to make that altogether unnecessary.

When Good Intentions Go Wrong

There are [more innocuous] cases that are almost clear-cut—a retirement party, for example, which is, in intent, overwhelmingly and enthusiastically acknowledgment, yet speckled with pro forma or heartfelt encouragement.

But, here too, the ambiguity of celebratory moments creates the possibility that the intent of the moment may differ dramatically from its consequences.

The retiree, although likely to appreciate both messages, may nonetheless be depressed by everyone’s awareness—including his own—that his career is over, that somehow this celebration is at best an Irish wake held for him.

Hence, even when both acknowledgement and encouragement are intended and seen as a good thing, care should be taken to ensure that the celebration doesn’t backfire.

Putin’s Wisdom

Likewise, it pays to be alert to the possibility that the acknowledgement and/or encouragement you are offering may be seen as nothing more than self-congratulation.

In a news broadcast of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s response to an American audience’s thunderous applause for their hometown-promoting spokesperson, during one of his visits to the U.S., his interpreter perhaps unwittingly, but accurately, translated part of Putin’s comments as “You are applauding yourselves.”

So true, so often.

So obvious.

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in Employee Recognition]