Employees are people, not just work units

We must not forget that employees are people (first) who have physical bodies, emotional reactions, goals and desires, and families and lives outside of work.

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Let me pose some questions for you:

  *Are you a person or just a production unit?

  *Do you have a life outside of work? (Think: friends, family, interests)

  *Are you a person, even at work, beyond your role there and what you get done?


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While performing one’s job as expected is critical, I firmly believe that people have worth and value no matter their level of performance. Every person is a unique individual created by God, and we all are intrinsically valuable—apart from what we do or accomplish.

Many employees at all levels, including managers and supervisors, have shared with me their feelings of resentment about getting attention or hearing positive comments only when they meet or exceed the goals set for them. As a result, the employee feels like they are viewed solely as a “work unit” on a spreadsheet.

This issue is especially true for those who are in a strong performance / reward work environment. I had one lead manager tell me: “They don’t give a rip about us personally. As long as our numbers are good, we’re fine. But it is all about performance.”

In working with one company and their call center staff, the challenge of differentiating between recognition for performance and appreciating them as individuals became a significant issue we had to discuss and work through. One supervisor shared his struggles:

It is actually hard on both ends of the spectrum—both with high achievers and low performers—   to  not focus solely on their performance. And we have such a strong reward system for meeting goals that, even when I try to call attention to an action or characteristic that isn’t directly related to meeting their goals, I think my team members still have a hard time hearing (and maybe, believing) that it’s not all about performance.

Believe it or not, most people don’t want to be praised all the time for doing what they are supposed to do.  But it is nice to hear a “thanks” or an acknowledgment (at least occasionally) when you are doing your job. Otherwise, most of the feedback employees get from supervisors comes when they make a mistake, don’t meet a deadline, or aren’t performing in the way desired. (Do we cease to have value when we make a mistake?)

In last week’s blog, we talked about the difference between recognition and appreciation. The intent of recognition and appreciation are largely the same—to motivate, to increase the frequency of desired behaviors and results, and to encourage team members. The primary difference is that Recognition focuses primarily on performance, while the focus of Appreciation is on the person (which may or may not include meeting goals for standards of performance). For example, we may appreciate the fact that a colleague is cheerful and positive, even though she may not be a top performer in the group.

Good friend and colleague, Roy Saunderson (author of Real Recognition) mentioned to me that many in the world of HR and recognition are still primarily locked into the belief that rewards (tangible gifts) are the primary motivator of performance, even though research has clearly shown that this is frequently not the case. Roy stated, “Lots of people don’t really think about the difference between recognition and appreciation–they are stuck on the idea that employees wants ‘stuff’ and, as a result, companies waste millions of dollars giving out things people don’t really want.”  (See the research in The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace which thoroughly validates this point.)

The problem that comes from either a pure tangible reward approach or a recognition for performance approach (whether or not tangible gifts are used) is that these perspectives essentially translate “people” into “things” (a production machine) or utilize an animalistic model (think: rats and cheese).

We are more than “producers.” We are people. We have personality characteristics, as well as other talents and skills that bring value to life, but may not be directly productivity-enhancing. We must not forget that employees are people (first) who have physical bodies, emotional reactions, goals and desires, as well as families and lives outside of work. When we lose this perspective then a mechanistic, “people are just resources” workplace develops. And no one wants to work there.

This article originally appeared on Appreciation at Work.


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Paul White|is a psychologist, speaker, consultant, and the author of The Vibrant Workplace, co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace and The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.